Saturday, 16 March 2019

Much more than principles

"I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live, and also, that they should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. This is God's gift to us".  Ecclesiastes 3:12,13.

When was the last time you said or did something that was immensely satisfying?
Something which made you feel that all was well with the world, because you had been able to help feed into an issue in such a way that people had been helped and you had been instrumental in moving things forward, at least a little, to clarity or even a resolution?

That manner of inter-action, I think, is what is touched on in the verse above. Amidst the rightness of reveling in the inherent joys of this life, even when we are often weak or troubled, we engage with others in such a way that something "momentous" happens, not because it is seen to make vast changes to everything, but because it allows us and another, or a few others, to encounter the 'live current' of being part of something larger than ourselves because we are brought together, and that facilitates care, value and meaning that transcends the utilitarian and the mundane. It conveys the reality of loving another.

Christianity isn't about setting-up a set of 'must do' principles on the chalk-board of our inner resolve and then, with great determination, seeking to constantly push these into our will through gritted teeth, telling our wayward desires that we "must" succeed in funneling our entire output through these commandment-like laws. Religion is often very good, in respects to cosmetics, in establishing such schemes, but that leaves our genuine needs and callings untouched, as they are entirely detached by such cruelty - think of the character of Morpheus in the movie, Forbidden Planet;  outwardly appearing so moral and concerned, but inwardly, a monster who's humanity had been incarcerated by his pride.

For things to truly be deep and meaningful for us, for them to resonate with the beauty that conveys the eternity of truth behind our days here, we have to know the God who is totally involved and engaged with us amidst all the joys and futility's of the present - that is key to our being able to really do good; to discovering genuine significance and satisfaction in our being good to each other, but the resource for such things comes from beyond us.

We have to dump our weak and beggarly attempts at 'doing' (resolution-like) for a life and a benevolence far above what we can ask or think, found in the good news of the giving of Jesus Christ.

Paul prays that we might really come to know for ourselves the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:19) - something far beyond mere mental assent to some principal of doing good. This is a love that fills us with the presence and life of God Himself, and it is that life, working through us, that facilitates genuine care and affection, genuine fellowship that brings a taste of what we are meant to be - those who live well.

When Christ is understood as the one who enables us to put away the childish yet deadly notion that we can achieve goodness in ourselves, we can look beyond the ruination of  fallen human will to find a new hope, a new reality that can do what we naturally ruin.

Christ alone, revealed among us as God in human flesh, is the fulfillment of all our shattered realms, and He has come to give us that beauty and delight, here and now.
If we put aside our 'religious' industry, He will grant us a joy the world never achieves.

As we approach Easter, it's worth more than we can imagine to look at Jesus afresh, and see the astonishing life God has given to us exclusively in Him.

Theology laid bare

Following through from my posting last week, I came across two items in the past few days that really help to clarify some of the issues I was seeking to consider on the nature of redemption and the body. The first of these is a jolting review from the Mockingbird website, which really examines the way that our faith is entirely physical in respect to its consequences and future ramifications.

The second is a conversation from Christianity Today, looking at the way our faith has sought to represent and appropriately honor the physical beauty of the female form in theology and art, which may surprise you.

What both items help to unpack is exactly the nature of what Lewis understood in respects to where our faith is heading - towards full material redemption and a bodily life that will indeed be the fulfillment of all that was fleetingly encountered in Eden.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Naked Truth ?

"Yet in my flesh, I shall see God"  Job 19:26

"Not in another flesh, but in my flesh shall I be resurrected. Some say the soul will be clothed in a new body, but then it would not be a resurrection. If the body did not rise again, the believer would not be completely happy - if the soul goes to eternity, but not the body, then we are never fully saved".  Thomas Watson. A body of Divinity.

I have really enjoyed re-visiting this week 'An offering of Uncles' by Robert Farrar Capon (as you will see from my last entry, as well as this one). You can truly savour that this man was a gem in his practical gifts of cooking and writing; his thoughts zing and crackle across the pages of this reflection on what it means for us to be priests, and inspires you to think and act in ways that respond to the marvel and splendor of this fact.

His section on personhood (discovering who we are) is sublime, and he follows this by looking at how everyday activities well-nigh cry from the rooftops concerning how we see our value resonate in these callings. He goes from there to the means God provides us to facilitate all of this - the wonderfully adaptable but equally admirable dress of our bodies.

He starts well, noting how going gnostic about this key part of us is totally wrong - "God made it, loves it, put Himself in it, died, rose and ascended to redeem it, and reigns forever in it ... showing all that pertains to the perfection of man's nature".
After touching on how we can effectively desecrate God's gift (by seeking to loathe the body) and how we can, when seeking to truly appreciate our forms, validate such, he makes the comments that as we will be eternally garbed in 'white robes', nudity (in respects to nudism - social nakedness) would appear to be a "wrong turn".

A couple of initial observations to think on.
First, the 'robes' we ARE clothed in by God are the garments of salvation (Isaiah 61:10) - the righteousness made ours in Jesus Christ's giving up of Himself for us, hence our 'garments' are made pure and spotless by His precious blood (Revelation 7:14).

Secondly, one of the key passages on the nature of our adornment in the new creation is found in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, where the Apostle Paul informs us that just as we are currently dressed in the 'tent' of our present bodies, we will be eternally clothed in the 'mansion' of those bodies once they are glorified (that is, as he shows in 1 Corinthians 15, have put on immortality).

Nudity, as part of everyday social life, was actually enjoyed principally without issue in the early church. If you wanted to get clean in Roman times, then the baths were the best place, and although some of these had divisions for men and women, some also were places of mixed bathing. Archeology has shown that Christians used these places for baptisms and early writings show that baptism itself was often performed naked.

This 'down to earth' approach to life and theology speaks deeply to us. Whilst critical of contemporary attempts to ill-fit equality through practices like modern naturism (the philosophy was faulty from the start), C S Lewis understands what is entangled in such ambitions. 
In his work, The Weight of Glory, he speaks of how we all know this deep longing (see Romans 8:19) to not just encounter or appreciate beauty, but to be united to it in a manner that is whole and complete. Later in the same work, he states that this longing is wholly true of our bodies, alive amidst our garments, which long to be naked in the fashion once tasted in Eden. That true estate lies ahead.

The splendor of what is being promised here is often lost behind the splintering of approaches towards the spiritual that wish us to divorce the physical and the eternal, but the Incarnation and the ramifications of this for God and His children are total.

God has married our full redemption to Himself in the offering of all that is found in Him through the life and body of Jesus, that we might indeed become a people who in turn offer all that is good in worship through our bodily existence. Death temporarily severs the body and soul, but eternal life is seeing these united in living well so that creation truly conveys the majesty and beauty intended when all was 'very good' on that glorious day in the garden.

The coming pinnacle of the new creation may be a city, but it is a garden city, with a river flowing from the tree of life where the throne of the Lamb resides (Revelation 22:1). This will crown a renewed realm where all that was good in the beginning is evidenced once more (Romans 8:20-24). This was expressed in early Christian art and the rejoicing in such beauty depicted in the Renascence. It should equally inform our faith, life and actions today.

"Consider the lilies", said Jesus, for such natural glory is truly a gift from God. It is and always will be part of our significance as well.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Ending Place-less-ness

"Could be right before your very eyes
Just beyond a door that's open wide
Could be far away or in your own backyard
There are those who say, you can look too hard
For your place in the world"    Mary Chapin Carpenter

"He has placed eternity in our hearts"  Solomon

Ever find yourself thinking that time should be more than just something you're rushing against, that a location shouldn't just be generic 'space', or that life itself is surely meant to be anchored in more than just existing in the brevity of the current moment?

Why, when so much of what's considered 'usual' is comprised of the above, would we even want to think outside of the box - not only think, but want... need what's beyond that?

We all know what it's like to really inhabit a time and a place in a way in which time no longer becomes defined by what we see on a clock face or schedule, but by the value, the weight, of what we experience in a realm which could last for seconds, minutes or hours. We know what happens when we are in a place which holds a value to us we cannot really put into words, and we are enriched when we recall those moments, in such times and places, where something truly meaningful and defining happened to us.

Priesthood in the Bible starts with a pretty dull definition - it's likened to the base of a structure, but it isn't long before Adam (the first person given responsibilities) discovers there's a breadth to what pivots on his viably interacting with the garden he's been placed in, and the role deepens rapidly as that engagement unfolds.

I often think that Eden would have become somewhat akin to Dr Ana Stelline's (Blade Runner 2049) world of unceasing possibility if we'd reveled in the splendor of what was ours and not headed into the cul de sac of violent servitude to severed existence.

Occasionally, we still stop and smell the honeysuckle, and, oh, how it reaches in as we're transported to somewhere we know we should be instead of the dirt and diaspora of our broken lives.

Christianity is about genuine priesthood. It tells us that Eden isn't over - that the paradise sold for a sour lie is not so far away when God comes for us again.

It means that those moments when the seasons facilitate our souls warming to the beauty that whispers of the eternal set our feet back to the true intent of God - life, abundant and unceasing.

Religion gives us copious regimens of rules and abstractions about the divine. Priesthood puts us right back beneath the tree of life and desires us to eat to our heart's content.
It heals us by making the pathetic blind thing we are into persons, tall and erect, once more, endowed with a dignity that makes all of life shameless and naked before the one who walks with us in joy.

Heaven isn't some weird harp academy where we wish we were elsewhere. It's the renewal of all that is so good about life without all the sharp deaths of selfishness cruelty and evil malevolence. It's an earth where we can breathe easy, because the servitude of 'must' will be replaced with the pleasure of 'can'.

Next time you have a 'moment', when heaven seems closer, consider what it says about you, and what life can be, when we're freed to be His Priests again.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

More broken than we care to admit

"You must ask for God's help. ... After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again".   C S Lewis.

It always interests me to see what verses about ourselves we chose to omit from our own "versions" of the scriptures.

There's these, for example:
"I am of the flesh, enslaved by sin. I do what is evil because sin dwells within me (nothing good dwells in my flesh). I have a desire to do good, but I do not do this, but I do evil instead. I find that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand (for) I see in my members a power waging war against what is good and making me captive to sin that resides in me, so in my mind I know and desire to serve what is good, but in my flesh I serve the law of sin... Wretched man that I am!". Paul (Romans 7).

It's pretty clear what Paul is stating here - sin works in us, so that we sin. This is why we believe that union with Christ makes us simultaneously justified yet still sinful - we know there will be times of failure, but we know that grace has already dealt with these in the righteous life and death of Christ, hence -
"If we say we have no sin,  we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-10).

So, why do Christians teach things like this (which came up on a facebook link this week):
"It's a spiritual impossibility to love God but have difficulty obeying Him in certain areas".

The piece referred to is clearly speaking about you and I loving God in a way that is total. It reminded me of a conversation between John and Charles Wesley. John was well known for teaching that christians should be perfect in their conduct so they could express Gods holiness to the world. One day, Charles came to him in exasperation and said "John, I just cannot do it - I cannot keep all these rules and requirements to be holy". John is said to have replied that that was fine "Just love God instead".

Duty. Requirements. Obligations. Law.
It leaves us in the spin Paul found himself in when writing Romans 7, because honesty tells us that in ourselves, we're on a road to no where.
It leaves us, like David, at a time of obligation (2 Samuel 11:1), lounging and longing for something to allow the person to run free - often with dire consequences.

We find it hard to get close to that manner of honesty because it requires us to look deeper than our more immediate transgressions to the fact that there is part of us that not only desires gratification of our natural appetites  (bent and twisted though they are by sin), but our core needs for meaning and purpose, so easily beset by pride and idolatry. It reminds us (as a new piece on Mockingbird put it this week) that "behind (inside) every faithful believer is an equally faithful atheist, seeking to tell us that it is all nonsense".

Christianity has to do its exposition of this well, because when we seek to, in some fashion, introduce a program which says you can be achieving what is expected of you (in respect to all the requirements of inward holiness and external righteous behaviour), we are getting terribly close to peddling a 'Dr good' snake oil remedy that was too well known in the first century of the faith (see Galatians 1:6-9).

In me, that is in my natural self, noted Paul, there does not dwell anything good, so if you, in effect, train what is evil to act and pretend to be good, that's not holiness - it's diabolical.

So, let's put ourselves where scripture does, and seek to lay out our theology from there, like this:
"Original sin... is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man, (hence we) are very far removed from original righteousness and are of our own nature inclined to evil, so our flesh craves continually in opposition to what is good... and this infection of nature remains in those born anew and is not subject to God's requirements, hence the Apostle (Paul) declares that such propensities to desire what is evil - to sin - are evident amongst those who believe and are baptized, but are not condemned (because of Christ)" (39 articles - 1561).

The only means provided by God that cleanses us from sin and unrighteousness is the blood of Jesus Christ ( 1 John 1:7) - our entire fellowship together is because of that reality. It underpins the fact that we are sinners saved entirely by grace (Romans 3:21-26, 4:5). If we open the door, even an inch, that conveys that something instead of or, more likely, as well as that unmerited love is required, we have omitted from and added to the word of life, and we are back to the bondage of our own worth and merits, seeking to purchase good standing with God by our own standards.

"When grace is known", notes Paul Zahl, "not confounded in any degree by law, it paints a masterpiece: a person  unconditionally affirmed who instantaneously becomes the expresser of love and joy and peace and creativity" (Grace in theology). When grace is subverted by law, we instead create a Dorian Grey - a man who may dress in charm and endearment, but whose vice is slowly murdering him, without remedy.

We cannot, we must not, ascribe to a theology that leaves us with the latter and not the former, for that would leave us with a company who do not love God, but hate Him.

Christianity reflects the light, but the light is from one far more lovely than ourselves. He alone will make all things new.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Liberating ourselves to death

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.  C S Lewis.

What happens when you reach a point where what has been deemed 'right' by power can only continue at great cost to others?

There's a great British classic film you can watch on You tube, called the Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). It imagines a scenario where the world is literally shifted by the folly of the super-powers, seen through the eyes of the staff of a London newspaper.
Towards the end of the film, as doomsday approaches, the general populace of London go on a rampage, similar to that witnessed in New York the night of the great power failure in 1977. 
Fiction is reflected in reality.

Towards the end of the second world war, the troops of the Soviet Union (a country which had killed around 20 million of its own people in this conflict) liberated many of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland. A few weeks later, as these same troops captured large parts of Germany, they proceeded to rape some 150,000 defenseless German women. Thousands of the women committed suicide.

Why the history lesson?
Because history so often repeats itself.

This month in parts of America, under the guise of rights and democracy, attempts have begun to legislate to allow the termination of full term pregnancies - babies, no less, on the slightest of pretexts in respect to a women's health. The declaration of such aims was met with revelry in New York, and the possibility of terminating a child's life after the birth is also being examined.

We have lived with the horror of sanctioned abortions in the West for several decades, but we are about to open a doorway that will leave us on par with the deeds of the purges of communist Russia or China or the death camps of Nazi Germany.

How can the 'democratic' world even be considering such an awful thing? How far have we departed from the sanctity and value of human life at a time when marriage and raising families has also become seriously threatened.

No doubt some will reply I'm on some religious soap box here - that I take this view because I'm seeking to push what my faith states, but when you consider the issue honestly, there's much more to say than just that - take a look at this argument.

What deeply troubles me is where this road is taking us - where will our culture be in a couple of decades if we legislate such acceptance of the right to terminate a child?

Is this healthy... for anyone? 

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Two Worlds

"Change is inevitable--except from a vending machine".-Robert C. Gallagher

There I was, doing my scheduled trip to work, but across a terrain entirely different to normal. A sudden substantial drop in the temperature the evening before had swiftly adjusted the routine rain into snow, and although it hadn't lasted very long, it had left a frozen system of roads and pavements.

Doing things that had been commonplace the day before suddenly became dangerous, and the busy rush to work had become a very slow, thin trickle of people and vehicles.
What a difference just one change can make.

In a few hours, the world had been shifted.

Then, I reached the city, and it was as though I'd been mistaken - the roads here were free of any frost and ice, and it looked just like it did the day before.

Two very different worlds very close to each other, each requiring a different way of thinking, of behaving, to use them without harm.

We encounter such changes without thinking, at least until the impact on us is direct and immediate, but such sharp turns should make us think.

When a moment happens suddenly like yesterday, you have to adapt quickly to continue doing what's required, but there are far more subtle changes happening around us every moment of every day that, when they reach a tipping point, can result in an entire world becoming opened or closed to us, at both the smallest and largest of levels. 
A relationship is suddenly begun or lost because two people see each other differently, businesses rise and fall through particular choices or what we deem to be free choices become defined by subtle analysis of our prior decisions, so we begin to be 'directed' by specific forms of media or other controls. Change generally means something quite radical happening to us and our world, but how can we be sure it's for our good?

When we think about just one strand of life - say, the differences between the sexes - we quickly begin to notice that these may often be subtle, but they are inherently there. When changes that seek to deny these realties are imposed (think Russia in the 1920s), they fail, even if there's huge ideological momentum behind them, because they deny something far more important about us.

Change cannot usually erase or adjust for the better what we are at our core. For that kind of change, you need something impacting upon us that is far greater than dogma or stronger than gravity. You need grace.

Grace has the kind of strength delivered by a hurricane, but the gentleness of a nursing mother. Grace has the depth and height of the most breathtaking natural wonder you've encountered (or all of them combined), but the tenderness to speak tenderly to the most troubled conscience.

Our world is often a place that snubs grace.

Grace is something given to us beyond our comprehension, beyond our estimated worth or abilities. It makes it OK for me to live, as I am, gaining light about what I am and ought to be.

God wants us to know that change above and beyond anything else - that's why He became one of us - to say that right here, right now, life can be so much more than we ever imagined.

Grace is always there, even when we think we've moved way beyond its orbit - it's amazing how it can bring recovery.

Every day of your life may bring changes, large and small, but there's one key thing each of us need all the time.

Time to take a look at the world of Grace.