Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Visitation

"If hope is reduced to salvation of the soul in a heaven beyond death, it looses its power to renew life and change the world, and its flame is quenched". Jurgen Moltmann.

It's been a particularly good summer here this year, allowing people to get out and enjoy times outdoors and even, quite remarkable for here, plan for trips several weeks in advance as the sunshine has proved a regular feature. There is, of course, a flip-side to this - the heat can be particularly difficult for some (especially those of us who have had to work through most of the nice days), and there are moments when you really want it to be at least a little less intense, particularly at the end of a day, so you can cool down and sleep.

Lengthy periods like this, however, do provide a glimpse of what it would be like to live during a time when there is nothing but such conditions and how arduous it would be to try and live.

Environmental trouble was often a means God used in times past to seek to bring to people's attention their evil or folly, and when Ahab became King of Israel, it wasn't long before such a trouble was necessary. The new king's attitude was simple - if God said it was wrong, do it, and this extended even to the point of actively seeking to erase the deeds and awareness of the Lord from both the history books and the culture of his day, hence he and his wife rightly gained the reputation of being the most infamous royals in the history of the land.

Ahab had one major problem, however.


Elijah wasn't just a living testimony of the reality of God, He was also under divine protection and, under God's authority, could bring into being all manner of troubles that left Ahab and Jezebel hopping mad.

That's how the drought began.
Elijah prayed (see James 5:17-19), and the rains ceased and the land dried up, so that even the stream that sustained the prophet for a time was gone.

Elijah is sent to a house of a widow, barely existing with her son, and the impact of the drought is evident. They have a final meal. Death is close. Mercifully God uses the Prophet to sustain them, but there's another problem. The son becomes ill and dies.

The widow is distraught with grief.
Surely, with such man here, this should not have happened. What manner of life is this, she cries, as all she appears to have is her sin and the misery of death.

That's when everything changes.
First, Elijah takes her dead child and by calling upon God, sees him restored to life. Then, after a personal crisis of faith,  he faces Ahab, sees the prophets of Baal destroyed, and rains returned to the land.

We can readily find parallels to Ahab's policies in our times. There's beliefs and deeds aplenty that wish to make God redundant and scrubbed out, but like those times in Israel's past, there are a couple of real problems.

First, there's what we could speak of as the 'mundane' testimony of life itself. However harsh things can become, there are still 'witnesses' and events that, like the miraculous continuation of that last meal, "speak" deeply to us of a God who is there. That was Ahab's real nightmare. However much he wanted to eradicate God from his world, he couldn't - there was always something (or, because of Elijah, someone) in the way to stop this from happening. Sure, he could erect his idols and live, it appeared, without scruple with his idolatrous wife, but every time he glanced in the rear view mirror, God was still pursuing him.
How many fall into that category?

Then there are those of us like the widow, living under the tyranny, but not really living or surviving, because the awfulness is killing us. We have nowhere to run or hide, and there seems no answers, until God shows up in such a way that everything is changed. The widow's experience shows that such an encounter isn't going to be easy for us or our world, but its presence is miraculous, turning our poverty and hopelessness into something precious and astounding.

Then there's Elijah. James makes it clear that he was just like us, and the story doesn't omit the fact that he had very real fears and doubts, but he also knew, in spite of those troubles, that the Lord was present, and that one truth could change everything.

The story tells us one thing above all else.

Whatever our view or status, God is here.
He has come to us, and He's not going away, so how do we now choose to live?

Hardship, poverty, death - they are truths we are all going to face in some form. The question is will we discover God alongside us in these times, and if so, what will our reaction be?

Jesus wants to draw close to us, to show us a love and a truth that shatters the darkness and sets us free.

There's life beyond the draught of our hopelessly small world without the life that comes from Him.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

It's not what you think...

"A man who is eating a meal, lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in thankfulness and humility, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one reading Plato or listening to Bach in a state of pride".  C S Lewis.

"The only way I can know I am loved is to know that I'm forgiven - that I am not the ass that I could so easily conclude I am. I fail everyday (that's me). I hardly pray at all because. well, who cares what I think?"  Don Dickinson.  

Bad theology starts when we loose it - not our calm, exterior demeanor or our feeling good garb, but what, as the above quotes suggest, makes us, defines "us".

There has to be more than living gripped by the choke-hold of human pride.

"We err and hurt on a regular basis, we are intimately acquainted with just how unworthy we are of the gift that’s been given us", notes Mr Dickinson, but because the price for that was paid by someone else's blood (as Chris Pratt recently stated as an MTV award ceremony) - that alone makes the profane sacred.

The problem so often isn't the gracious offer that Christ and the Gospel makes to us - inviting us to take on the rest (peace and mercy) that Christ wishes to place upon us (Matthew 11:28 & 29) - the problem so often is "why should I"? Why should I 'rest' in anything other than my own doing?

It doesn't take much to beguile me.
A bit of commendation, a good feeling, sunshine, even a look in the mirror, and I can be tripping over my own ego before I've even recognized it (and of course, the trouble is most of the time, I don't!). That's why we find honest and meaningful statements that touch on our weaknesses so hard to take. We don't like to see our supposed 'value' brought into even the possibility of disrepute.
Being wrong, especially when it comes to actually seeing us, is our immediate de-fault position. We prefer to dress ourselves with what we think we are, and easily miss what's really going on.

The good news is that God has done everything necessary anyway - in spite of our stumbling around and totally missing what counts, God has stepped in and says, 'come on home'.
If your religion boils down to "I'm doing" or "I will achieve" then you'll always be trying to get there. God tells us to get over ourselves and put our trust in His making us His.

It isn't "my" (acts, words, attitudes, etc) that changes anything. Will your worrying, asks Jesus, add one moment to your life (actually, it's more likely to shorten it!), so if it cannot do something so small, why do we spend so much time doing it? 

What's true of worry, is equally true of so much of what we do.

We're so strung out because... we're us.

Life needs to be about more - it's hearing the truth that cuts the chains of our slavery to self centeredness to find ourselves in someone who truly knows us and loves us anyway.

The ground won't hold beneath the already fractured image of me only without someone taking away the mask, the incarceration to an illusion and replacing it with a true and better humanity and destination.

Christ - to us, for us, with us - that's how things add up.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Pause for thought...

"It is not right to learn only to do art as a tool, as a means to a narrowly conceived evangelistic end, because artistry in God's world has its own proper task of giving joy, its own peculiar ministry of healing, its own God-given gift of serving nuanced insight for one's neighbour". Calvin Seerfield - Redemptive artistry in contemporary culture.

I don't know how it was with with you, but I was raised on the escapism of the screen. My parents used to love Hollywood musicals, melodramas and epics, so that was the standard fare for weekends in my childhood. In my teens, after the joys of Gerry Anderson's TV21 universe, I discovered well considered Science Fiction - movies like Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and reveled in the better quality stories of Trek, the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone. During my last three decades, my pleasure in movies and good shows has expanded across most genres, and I relish opportunities to consider or reflect on some of the best work done in this field.

Which brings me to the rising tide of new Christian movies.
Now, don't get me wrong - it's certainly not all bad news. Recent well-made studio productions such as 'Risen' are well worth a look, and private creations like the Documentary,  'Patterns of Evidence' are superb for looking at the veracity of the Biblical message, but there are a whole batch of movies, predominantly created by Pure Flix, which, whilst doing huge box office, are effectively only catering to an in-house market rather than being genuinely good and entertaining films for a wider audience.

I understand that the goal in such productions is to convey a message - the message - that the faith is true and needs to be heard, but if we seriously believe that, we have to convey this in such a way that it is palpable and convincing because the fiction being portrayed 'speaks' to the reality of life.
I'm not saying such films cannot be evangelical - most good movies are trying to say something, just that the poor quality of what's being produced seriously needs to be addressed if we want to offer work that is going to come across as worthwhile through this genre.

Here's a video that looks at this issue in detail.
If you have any thoughts on the subject, let me know.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Controversial Culture

"There was that amusing squall in a teapot recently about a Cranach Venus that London Transport refused to display on Underground platforms because the poster was deemed inappropriate". Paul Mc Cain.

So, it's finally happened.
The American Beauty Pageant, Miss America, has become the latest casualty to Political Correctness.

No more bikinis.
No more judging of contestants by their elegant physique.
No more deciding of who can enter on the basis of such 'secondary' matters as looks - that is prejudicial.

Adam's response to Eve in Eden is now politically incorrect.

The sumptuous descriptions of the beloved in the Song of Songs must remain appropriately muted, and Christians like messieurs Cranach and Bonnerotti depicting the nude, even in art, amounts to (to use the response of Roman Cardinals at the time) obscenity of the highest order.

The imposed puritanism of the Facebook generation, which demands "moral" externals (by keeping rules about not showing breasts or pubic regions) but, in practice, can become devices for all manner of terrorism and wickedness (the latest Hamas attacks were organized on Facebook) - is being imposed upon us, and we should reject it totally.

Creativity of the kind you are currently reading is about to be stifled by the EU's new Article 13 stipulation, which will make it illegal for blogs like this and sites like You Tube to reference or borrow for artistic purposes materials by others without paying huge fees, meaning that only large media corporations will be able to use such sources.

The "powers" of this world only wish to darken and cloud the true splendour and grace of what God freely bestows to express His goodness and nature, so that we can truly glimpse the majesty of the Godhead (Genesis 1:26).

To borrow from Michaelangelo, when his great work was being so crudely maligned by fools, we are not pagans - our world has been defined by Christ, by the Cross and the bodily resurrection of God's Son - and that is what should and must define our relationship to being made in God's image and likeness. It must inform our way of seeing ourselves, our art, and the world. To defame or demean what God has bestowed upon us is a dreadful folly, so whilst we may not personally find a particular form of social engagement and enrichment to our taste - beauty pageants for example - it speaks deeply concerning the ugliness of our times when such activities become the target of those who wish to sterilize and politicize such pleasures to creature a "purer" culture devoid both of God's natural gifts (aesthetics) but pushing a post-modernal 'rightness' that would have been entirely at home in various modern tyrannies.

The days we live in are becoming more and more polarized, and beauty, truth, viable recreational engagement with life, and other related essential good things, are the first casualties in this growing suppression of light in favor of a malignancy that is cruelly bland, mono-tonal and demeaningly dull in its goals.

If we can grasp the emptiness of the times, as Roger Scruton notes in his work on Beauty, it is because genuine art and truth point us to another way of understanding ourselves.

There is much more to say, but all of us need to take care that so-called "morality" does not become the device that kills us to all that God has made beautiful in its time that echoes the call of eternity He has placed within our hearts.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Daylight Robbery!

"He picked up the diamonds and bundles of fivers
He pushed them, well, down in his sack
But the alarm had been sounded, he was completely surrounded
But he had some more tricks up his sleeve"

Robbery, Assault and Battery - from Trick of the Tail by Genesis

"For they have gone the way of Cain, and have abandoned themselves for the gain of Balaam's error,
 and perished in the gainsaying of Korah"  Jude 11.

The dreadful story of Jim Jones and how he lead his followers to literally poison themselves because he told them to still chills us many decades after the event.
We wonder how someone can be so controlling, so charismatic, that he can literally lead people to do anything he tells them to do, even at the cost of their own lives.

We're no doubt thankful that such extreme cases are few and far between, but they highlight a truly deadly issue in regards to the danger of who has authority amongst us and what the consequences of choosing the wrong people to lead can be.

There's a telling moment when word about Jesus had begun to spread and the crowds had begun to gather to hear and see Him. The gospel tells us that He looked upon them with compassion for they were harassed and helpless... sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36) and the harvest in the land was indeed great but the workers few.

Today we face a similar sorrow, not because there aren't many 'proclaiming' something, but because these men and women are the false teachers and apostles that Jude declares will poison the church as deeply as the murder that happened in Jonestown.

Jude tells us that the first indicator of their evil is that they will be like Cain (see 1 John 3:11-16), killing those who they should love. The Scriptures are not speaking here of physical murder, but of hating others because we refrain from truly providing what they need , spiritually and physically. This is particularly done through denying the truth by teaching error and by hoarding wealth and riches whilst neglecting the needs of others.

Jude also shows the motivation of this is that of Balaam - the prophet who decided that notoriety and riches were far more important to obtain than service and obedience to God. The tragedy, of course, is that he ended being killed on a battlefield, unable to retain either.

Finally, and most dreadfully of all, these false ones are like Korah, who believed he could enter the holy place on his own merits and by his own actions, blind to the character and warnings of the most high. The ground swallowed him, his household and all who followed him, and the camp of Israel were terrified of the swiftness of God's judgement.

Jesus shows us just how serious this matter is. The Gospels record the moment when He was truly angry, cleaning out the sanctuary of those who had turned a place of prayer into a den of thieves, seeking to rob people in the very house of God.

We cannot escape the fact that many of the popular teachers of today are exactly these kind of people - murdering the church with teachings that are lies and making themselves rich on the gullibility of those who think they can become healthier, wealthier or at least spiritually blessed by supporting them. The entire enterprise is offering nothing more than snake oil beneath a dazzling hall of mirrors.

May God keep us sheltered beneath the very precious grace of the Gospel of Christ's life, death and resurrection alone saving us, boasting in nothing more. 

Friday, 8 June 2018

Breaking the perpetual lies

"At one point I - I wondered how high up this thing goes". 
Carl Bernstein - All the President's Men.

One of the highlights of this month was getting to see The Post. Based around true events that lead directly into the Watergate affair and the downfall of the Nixon presidency, the movie asks a telling question - what do we do when we find out that the world has been sold a lie?

Poison is always more palatable when it's offered in something deemed as 'good'.
In the case of Vietnam, the lie was that America would defeat communism.
In the case of National Socialism, Germans were told that they would live in a reign of triumph that would endure for a thousand years (a sham to hide the real agenda).

For all of us, the evil was injected when we believed the lie that we could be masters of our own destiny because we thought that would make us free. The devil has had a field day ever since.

Just think for a moment about the examples above.
Think about how, in our own country, there has been a conspiracy of silence regarding the victims of continual abuse for decades.

Social Darwinism bellows that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but that is the mesmerism, the conditioning, necessary to keep us slowly dying from the cancer we all house inside.

The Scriptures make it clear that our enemy - the power behind such evil - has a very clear program in regards to us: to steal, to kill and to destroy.

When a culture, a product, a religion, sets out to enslave us, to de-value our true purpose, then we need to recognize the agenda behind that, and expose it for a lie.

The same is equally true in the church.
When Martin Luther re-discovered the essential nature of the Gospel of Grace, he could not keep silent. Though his life would become entirely overshadowed by trail and hardship as a result, he knew that he had to speak, because the very life of men and women was at stake, and the darkness and ignorance of the age had to be broken.

It speaks volumes that this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated that the most significant event in the history of the last 1500 years was not that heaven-sent moment in Wittenberg some 500 years ago when the teaching of the Apostles was loosed once more, but that what really counted was a treaty construed in Rome to establish the E U!

Instead of rejoicing in the message which sets men free, why should we extol a litany of lies 
? (Note, around the 11 minute mark onwards of this documentary, how the Heath administration knew the true purpose of the joining of the EEC was the creation of a federalist state, even as they lied to the country about this, and did it anyway!).
Why should church leaders seek to expunge the rightness of what Luther and the Reformers gave back to the church?

The venom that inspires and perpetuates such deceit runs deep
"let us burst His (God's) bonds asunder, and cast them away" cry the 'kings' (leaders)of the earth (Psalm 2:3), but such work only leaves us imprisoned in those delusions sold so easily to us by the murderer of all that is good.

To become those who are truly wealthy and wise, we must be those who listen to the truth that David expounds in Psalm 2.

Slavery is all we can know until the Son sets us free!