Friday, 29 February 2008

The Empty Set

"Everyone who relies on deeds defined by law to be righteous are cursed,
because as the law says 'cursed is anyone who does not abide by everything contained in the law, fulfilling it all'. No, the righteous will live by faith....
In Christ alone, the blessings of Abraham come to us,
we receive the promised life in the Spirit through this faith".

Paul to the Galatians.

Have you ever been in a situation where you have totally miss-interpreted or miss-understood the information you've been given about a particular subject or task? I don't know if it's because I'm getting old or stubborn (probably both!), but I often find myself these days 'tripping up' in this fashion and then realizing - "Ah ha! I should have done this". Normally, of course, making such mistakes isn't too serious (you can usually re-do most things), but what if you're doing something totally wrong about something that really matters?

In his 'letter of liberation' to the miss-guided Galatians, the Apostle Paul confronts just such a problem - one that arises again and again in Christianity.

Now I realize that my last statement is pretty strong, and may raise some objections...
'How can that be?' someone may ask - 'we no longer have those early 'Judaizers' peddling certain rites or practices in our day', but to reduce the purpose of this epistle to something as cultural as allowing or stopping a certain tradition is to entirely miss-construe the nature of the systemic 'leaven' - the malady - which Paul is exposing.

Those Reformers of the 1500's which sought to correctly apply the Apostle's teaching here spoke of the vital distinction between a 'theology about the cross' (what they often referred to as a 'theology of glory') and a 'theology of the cross' - where our faith (our 'dying' and 'living' each day) is determined by a genuine union with Christ.
As then, and in Paul's day, the church is plagued with 'about' theology -approaches which look at the New Testament and seek to determine what is meant by formulating some system which makes it reasonable. The cross can then become some form of example to us (i.e. of God's love) - something that we can assent to without this in any manner impacting directly upon ourselves. We are left as merely spectators, seeking to judge if such a 'fact' has any real bearing or relation to the rest of our reality. The defining element, then, quickly becomes our own determinations rather than the revelation provided by God.
It leaves us , by our own faculties (should we chose), to 'climb' towards 'God' - to use such understanding as a means to reach (what we determine) as heavenward. By holding such views (however these may be deemed 'right'), we fall into the same trap as the Galatians - seeking to gain and advocate a 'form' of righteousness detached from Christ and the actual theology of the cross.

Christianity is something very different to this.
Christ calls us not to speculate, to de-construct His work in this way, but to participate, each day, in His life through a dying to self and a living through Him.
The Cross is an end to all that has gone before, putting to death the dreadful fraud of finding ways and means other than union with Christ as the truth - it is as total and as final as physical death, and it must be something which works in us everyday if we are to know any freedom from the "old" - the old nature, the law, and sin.

To conclude,
"The stem of the Cross becomes the staff of life, and thereby in the midst of the world life is set up anew upon a cursed ground...What a strange paradise, this hill of Golgotha - this cross, this broken body, this shed blood. What a strange tree of life, this tree on which God must suffer and die - die! But it is in fact the Kingdom of resurrection given to those who draw close by God's grace; it is the open door of imperishable hope, of waiting and patience...the centre of both the fallen and preserved world of God" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Creation and Fall).

Let us come, and let us thereby walk and live.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Getting the Facts Right

"But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others we know not of". Hamlet.

It's been an interesting few weeks.
I've been both delighted and intrigued to participate in an on-line discussion which has certainly touched upon the deeper issues of just how is someone 'made right' with God and equally, assuming that transpires, how do you then live?
(Anyone wishing to read the discussion for themselves can do so at the Internet monk blog site.
Here is the archive link to this:

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a big Science Fiction fan, and one of the common scenarios in this genre is humanity facing places or circumstances that are totally alien.
A good example was in the Star Trek series, Enterprise, where in the third season, the ship and crew have to traverse an area of space where the normal physical laws no longer apply, making their journey very strange and perilous indeed.
What is true in such fiction is equally true about reality.

The revelation we are supplied in scripture informs us that the original realm we once inhabited has gone, and with it, our genuine humanity. If you or I were to even view that placed described as "Eden" as we are right now, it would truly be an alien world to us - we are so 'detached', so alien to what we were created to be.
There are telling 'whispers' inside each of us that prompt us of that reality - we're aware when we do something wrong, and we're afraid, especially of death, because we sense there is just something not right about corruption and decay - about that part of us that leans all to easily to evil or to fear.

Such a 'voice' tells us that there is something more, but it leaves us in despair about how we reach beyond what we are (we can, of course, pretend we're doing OK, but the 'voice' is still there, telling us how things really are).

Christianity is the answer because it tells us that God is not seeking to turn us into something alien (dis-embodied souls, re-incarnated creatures or nothingness) - He is about restoring us to live in the world we left behind - making us truly human once again.
Now maybe we think we know this - we've been to church a few times and been 'in the group' long enough to know the guide - but how directly does this reality impact upon the way we look at life each day? How do you 'unpack' such redemption in your everyday experience?

What was fascinating about the blog discussion I referred to earlier was just how many think the way forward is to seek to revert to some kind of understanding or behavior which they had even before they were Christians - employ the 'voice' of do's and dont's as the safe policy. The guide gives so many rules, so many requirements, goes the reasoning, that surely the way to make progress is by just seeking to keep these - isn't that why they are there?

The problem here is, just like in a good sci-fi story, applying the wrong solution in the wrong circumstances is well nigh disastrous!

Back in the 1500's, Martin Luther wrote an amazing book - the Bondage of the Will - which sought to expose the fatal flaw in such reasoning - acting that way is totally alien to what we now are, so what is needed is not rule keeping, but life in the new!

Christ came to free us from the tyranny of our 'alien-ness' to God's good work, to clothe us in a new nature that we might actually begin to live well. When the nature of Jesus Christ becomes evident in us, then the genuine characteristics of that life (love, joy, peace) will become expressed in what we are and what we do - not by rule keeping, but by living in the life which comes from Him.

That is what the good news is really all about!

"It is the story of something that happened here on earth, strong enough to break the hold of (the old) on us, strong enough to turn this earth itself into a place of light and life...
It is (giving back the) voice that is strong enough to make us and keep us human,
to enable us to live as we were intended to live - as creatures of God".

Gerhard Forde.

I must conclude my thoughts here by saying that whilst there were some in the discussion who suggested what might be termed 'law keeping' was the best way forward, there were others that recognized that Christianity really calls for much more -
a 'death' to everything tainted by mankind's departure from God (including our own moralizing and rule-making) and a 'resurrection' each day to the life that comes to us from above.
That indeed is the hope which can help.

Friday, 15 February 2008


"Light has come into this world, but men loved darkness instead of the light because their deeds
were evil. Everyone who hates the light will not come to it, because it exposes their deeds, but whoever comes by means of truth will come to the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they have done has been done through God". John's Gospel, chapter 3, verses 19-21.

It is without doubt one of the most dreadful and terrifying things that can happen to people - when a lie is given power and credibility and promoted as good and right. I can recall many years ago watching the film, 'The Killing Fields' and feeling totally horrified at how human beings can give themselves over (via fear or selfishness) to the atrocious. It is, sadly, a common tale of our times; a savage age filled with examples in almost every part of the world of such carnage, but rarely do we face the reality of what generates such evil. Thankfully, if painfully, life can occasionally intervene to jolt us back to this reality. It did for me this week.

Traveling on a train to a nearby city, I encountered a group of youths, aged between around eleven and thirteen years of age. They decided to sit in the carriage where I was, and, despite this being deemed a zone where mobile phones and the like should not be used, proceeded to loudly begin to use such devices.

It wasn't just their flagrant disrespect for everyone else in the place that was the problem - it was the sheer level of profanity in the materials they were accessing and discussing without any sense of conscience or shame. Two boys across from me, not yet in their teens, openly discussed 'family porn' videos they had downloaded that morning and homosexual acts as 'fun', before joining in singing a grotesque rap song they had on their phones.
I sought to ask them, politely, to turn off these devices as they were not meant to be used - this merely resulted in a few minutes quieter use, before they became even louder.

I found myself shaking from the incident as I left the train; the incident was like a nightmare in slow motion, and for good reason - there was simply no respect in these young boys for themselves or others, allowed at such an age to travel without parents or adults they could look up to, that would prevent them so easily reveling in such corruption (one even spoke of how his parent liked the videos!).

The darkness that resides in the human heart which makes us shameless has indeed become evident, vaunted in our world, and this in itself is a judgment upon a race which now loudly denies the God who formed us and has brought light into our miserable estate.

The last few days have made me so very aware of the fact that we all share a propensity to fall;
to mis-use what God has bestowed and demean what He has made us to be, but thankfully,
as was the case for Noah following his drunken errors, there is mercy if we seek the light of genuine grace, found in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Beyond Ourselves

"When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after, the small space I occupy which is swallowed up into the immensity of time and space which I know nothing of and which knows nothing of me;
the limits set upon my stature and abilities, my insignificance amidst a billion galaxies of billions of stars,
the frailty and folly of my nature and the deepest hunger of my soul,
then I can acknowledge a greater, higher, wiser one,
a God whose chart is eternal and whose nature is profound".

Bliase Pascal.

There are all manner of experiences and encounters in life that can truly overwhelm us.
I recall one winters night in my own life when my brother drove me out into the Sussex countryside for my first real view of the milky way (an experience I actually improved upon a few years ago when I found myself on a clear night in the Rocky mountains). Looking up at all those thousands of stars, the vastness of the heavens - it sparks something deep.
One of my favourite movie moments of all time is the opening of the film, Contact. It's a great movie, with lots of interesting thoughts about science, theology and faith, but that opening scene (see the You Tube link below) really gives you a sense of our 'smallness' amidst the enormity of what surrounds our world - the overwhelming scale of time and space.

My opening quote by Pascal really puts things in context - we really are that small, and yet, most of us sense that there is something of import going on amidst the existence of this strange thing termed humanity. Even the most ardent atheist usually has a streak of optimism concerning the future of our race - that the adventure has only just begun. Why, amidst such vastness and our own propensity to corrupt and destroy do we believe something better about ourselves, especially when reality itself can be so cold and dark?

In the book of Genesis when Abraham confronts the Almighty, he meets a God that is truly God!
The Lord defines Himself as one who is greater that the countless expanse of the stars, the one found to be greater than the deepest, most terrible darkness (Genesis 15). This God tells Abraham that he will bring life to the well-nigh dead bodies of himself and his wife, Sarah, that they may have children in their old age (Genesis 17:1-10).
We are told many things about Abraham and his journeys, but the most important is without question that when he encountered this God and heard His promises, he trusted in them, and that is what changed His life so that he could indeed become the father of many who would likewise trust.

As the story of this man continues, we begin to realize a truth that Jesus referred to many generations later - Abraham's faith allowed him to 'see' the REAL promise of God of deliverance from our fallen state by the gift of God's Son. That is indeed why our kind have a future - a marvelous future - if we share confidence with Abraham, a faith in the promises made by the Almighty God. Such a faith allows us to look beyond the moment, beyond our present frailty, into the day when all of creation shall be enveloped by the redeeming love and presence of our maker.

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