Thursday, December 26, 2013

Not alone

Frasier is probably my favourite sitcom of all time, and Niles is probably the character who most entertains me. One of my favourite bits of dialogue comes from Niles shortly after his separation from the always-absent-yet-hilariously-present Maris. Daphne asks if he gets lonely. "Oh", he replies with an air of nonchalance, "only sometimes when I'm by myself." And then he adds, with something a bit more like despair, "And other times when I'm with other people". Deep loneliness seems to me to be an inherent part of the human condition, here to the east of Eden. To be lonely by oneself, to be unhappy with one's own company; to be lonely with others, to wonder privately whether any of them really 'get' you.

If God had not come to us, as one of us (really one of us!) and yet not one of us, how lonely we would be! None of us is able, really and truly, to affirm the existence of another. Without the Good God drawing alongside, what would we be, ultimately, but little monads, trying to act as if the other were enough for me, as if my reflection in that person were sufficient.

Emmanuel. With us, really with us.

Not alone, never alone again.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What, then, shall we do?

Yesterday I was pondering the miserable state of the church in the west, and concluding that we are also at a low point in western culture generally, and I was thinking: what would our ecclesiastical forebears have done in this situation?  How would our forefathers have responded to the lack of evangelistic fruit which we have become used to?  What would they have done about the prevalence of sin in our lives and churches?  How would they have coped with the rapid move of general culture away from Christianity?

The lectionary directed me to Psalm 60, which is one of those Psalms we do nothing with.  If the heading is to be believed, it is a Psalm of David, written at a time of relative national faithfulness in Israel. Nevertheless, the theme is abandonment by God.  Verse 10 particularly struck me:

Have you not rejected us, O God?
You do not go forth, O God, with our armies.

Faced with national defeat, the people of God do not look to new strategies.  Neither do they settle down and accept the calamity as inevitable.  They look to God.  Specifically, the Psalm addresses the problem of his absence.

The logic of the Psalm works like this:
Major premise: we are losing this war.
(Assumed) minor premise: God does not lose.
Conclusion: God is not with us.

This logic leads to renewed prayer to God for his help and salvation.  This would only make sense as an 'application' if the Psalmist knew full well that God's abandonment of his people was not total, and the rest of the Psalm shows that clearly.  God has set up a banner and a refuge for those who fear him, even in the midst of apparent abandonment of his people.  Because of this, the response to God's rejection is not despair, but a renewed seeking of his face.  Only he can save.

Might we not conclude from our own situation that God is not going forth, as it were, with our armies?  I think our forebears would have concluded that God is not with us.  They would have held solemn days of humiliation and fasting.  They would have examined themselves to see what sin was holding back God's blessing (NB. examined themselves, not the surrounding culture).  They would have earnestly prayed for God's return to them in power.

What about us?

With God we shall do valiantly.  But do we even want to?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Karl Barth, d. 10th December 1968

I've never made any secret of the fact that Karl Barth is my theological hero.  It's not just the pipe that I find pleasing (although that is obviously a factor).  I love the way that Barth burst into the context of a liberalism which had more or less collapsed God into humanity, and declared the reality of the God who is other, the God who encounters humanity and each human.  Whereas late 19th and early 20th century theological liberalism had made man - his faith and his religious consciousness - the measure of all things, Barth witnessed to the priority of God over man, and the freedom of God over against man.  Moreover, he was clear throughout that this God who encounters and acts towards us is not an abstract deity, but the God who has revealed himself fully in Jesus Christ.

I did not come to Barth from the context of theological liberalism.  My own background looked to the period of Reformed Orthodoxy for its moorings, and found its theology in the Reformers as read through the lens of the English Puritans.  Within that context, what I have loved about Barth is his insistence that God acts.  There is a danger in Reformed Orthodoxy that an emphasis on the immutability of God renders the deity essentially static.  Whilst of course the pietist edge to that tradition kept the danger at bay in terms of practical religion, it seems to me that it still lurked in the formal theology of the movement.

For Barth, God is not so much the One who is there as the One who comes.  God comes to us in Christ, moves toward us in his Spirit, encounters us in the Scriptural witness.  Barth's God is on the prowl, and this to me fits the Biblical witness in a way that I had not seen in the writings of my own tradition.  And that has an impact on how I think the church should 'be' in this dark world - the people of God who wait for him to come, and the people of God who go in imitation of him.  The church has to live, because God lives.  In Christ, he lives toward us and for us.

Barth's last written words were these: "God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.  In him they all live..."

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

To my soul, during Advent

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Since you want to be amongst those who are saved, consider how you can stir yourself up to eagerly await the return of Christ.  You know very well how hard it will be.  You know all of the distractions - sinful things and things which are in themselves good - which you habitually use to keep your mind in the present and on the earth, away from endings and ultimate things.  But for this season, please, spend some time thinking about reality.

Meditate on the terrible things that happen in the world.  Consider that evil people prosper, and those who want to do good are often powerless.  Think about the fact that wickedness is part of the warp and woof of human society, built in to the very structures designed to restrain it.  Do not excuse these things, or resign yourself to them, but consider evil to be evil in truth.  Remember that only the coming of Christ will do away with wickedness, and only the coming of Christ will bring down those who do rather well for themselves out of their evil.  And pray, 'Come, Lord Jesus' - without vindictiveness towards those you see as evil, for who knows what side of the divide they will stand on in the end; but with compassion towards those who are broken by the sinfulness of humanity.

Consider the groaning of creation.  Think about each 'natural' disaster, and remember that it isn't natural.  Each terrible headline speaks of the bondage of creation, of the hideous ripples spreading out through all of created reality from the first sin of humanity.  Remember that only Jesus will bring creation to its longed for rest, and pray 'Come, Lord Jesus' - with hope for a renewed and perfect world.

Spend some time reflecting on your own sinfulness.  Think how many times you have failed your own standards, and then remember that your standards are far too low.  Think about how often you have had to cry to God from the depths of sin for mercy.  Consider the ongoing corruption in your heart, that taints even the good things you try to do.  Think about how hard it is to pray, how difficult to praise, how painful to serve.  Remember that only Jesus can deliver you from that wretched man, yourself, and pray 'Come, Lord Jesus' - in expectation of your own perfection.

Think about the face of Christ.  You have not seen it yet, but you know that one day, when he appears, your transformation will be complete as you see him as he is.  And pray, 'Come, Lord Jesus' - knowing that that will be heaven.