Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In the darkness

"Christmas is about light shining in the darkness; the light still shines and we still acknowledge that." - Gregor Duncan, Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway.

It is so very, very dark out there.  Just as dark as it was back then, before the child and the manger, before the virgin and the angel.  Darkness.  Disaster, unforeseen and inexplicable.  Human evil, human suffering, the groaning of creation.

When will the little light, kindled in the stable at Bethlehem, be spread through the whole earth?  When will it drive away the darkness?  When will the shadows retreat before its brilliance?

Joyous light of glory of the immortal Father,
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ...

What is all our celebration but to turn our backs for one day on the darkness and huddle around the flickering light...  And to believe?

To believe in the one day, the not yet, the light of the New Jerusalem which never dies - no sun, no moon, no night; the glory of God and the Lamb...

Yet in thy dark streets shineth...

Yes, the everlasting light is shining, still shining.  If we only had eyes to see...

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Paradoxes

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Christina Rosetti

Our God is so great that it doesn't belittle him to become a tiny baby.

Our God is so powerful that it doesn't weaken him to be totally dependent on a mother.

Our God is so holy and separate from sinners that it doesn't defile him to take on our nature.

Our God is so utterly free and unrestrained that it does not frustrate him to lie helpless in a manger.

Our God is so sovereign over time that it does not test his patience to learn how to talk and walk.

Our God is so glorious that it does not diminish him to be unknown and tucked away in  a stable.

Our God is so transcendent that it takes nothing from him fully to enter in to humanity.


Our God is Jesus Christ, and no other.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Christmas Spirit



And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."

Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Son of God, the breaking in to human history of Immanuel - God with us as one of us.  Christmas is the basis of all our knowledge of God.  I think that without it I would be an atheist, or at least agnostic.  If God had not shown himself to us, in real space and time and history, I'm not sure I would have spotted the signs of his presence throughout creation.

But Christmas is also about the Holy Spirit, and his own pre-eminent work.  Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as that person of the Godhead who is working within the creation, sustaining it and renewing it.  And here he is sanctifying one part of genuine created reality for the greatest purpose of all: the coming in of God himself, not only to be near humanity but to be a human being.  As Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, so he will be empowered throughout his life by the Spirit, and will eventually offer himself through the same Spirit to the Father, suffering and dying, before being raised again by the power of that same Holy Spirit.

There is a sort of vague 'spirit of Christmas' which is abroad, a generic festivity and merriment.  But the true Spirit of Christmas is very specific, very personal.  He is the Spirit of Jesus, the man who is God.  And that should mean more merriment, deeper festivity, real celebration.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The last victorious act

Reading John Owen's meditations On the Glory of Christ is one of the greatest pleasures that I have enjoyed so far in life - no exaggeration.  As I've been revisiting it recently, one of the things that has struck me is that the preface is largely about death.  The author was himself not long for this world: "My principal work having been now for a long season to die daily, as living in a continual expectation of my dissolution..."

What will enable us to face death?  How can we die well?  How "may we be able to encounter death cheerfully, constantly, and victoriously"?

Owen proposes three things.  Firstly, we must be prepared to surrender our spirits to God, after the example of Christ - something which is very difficult for us, both on account of our sinfulness and on account of the natural constitution of a human being as body and soul conjoined.  Secondly, we must be prepared to let go of the flesh and everything that goes with it, good and bad.  Thirdly, we must be happy to resign ourselves to God's management of time, and not to resent his timing.  How are these things, which are admittedly desperately difficult, to be achieved?

For Owen, these "cannot be attained unto, without a prospect of that glory that shall give us a new state far more excellent than what we here leave or depart from.  This we cannot have, whatever we pretend, unless we have some present views of the glory of Christ."  We cannot expect to enjoy Christ hereafter unless we have enjoyed him in this life.  And we cannot have any expectation of dying well unless we have that future glory to look forward to.

Since unless the Lord comes (Maranatha!) I will certainly die, there is nothing better for me to do with my time now than to meditate on the glory of Christ, to acquire a taste for his goodness, to learn to value him above everything else.  In so far as I do this, I will be prepared to surrender to death.

"This is the last victorious act of faith, wherein its conquest over its last enemy death itself doth consist" - namely, to be so delighted by the prospect of seeing Christ in his glory that I can be comforted in death and happily surrender my spirit into his hands.

God help us so to do.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Always learning

I think theological progress (and regress) happens broadly like this.  There is a new and powerful insight into some theological locus, or into the whole scheme of Christian doctrine.  'New and powerful' does not always mean true and helpful, so there will be and should be a debate about whether this insight is in fact an improvement on what has gone before.  Depending on how this debate goes, this new insight may become the new orthodoxy, generally accepted as the best way, or at least a good way, of expressing Christian doctrine in the here and now.  Over time, though, this new orthodoxy becomes brittle.  It is perhaps explained and explained until the kernel of the original insight is lost behind scholastic definitions, or it is defended and defended until the keep of the original insight is almost invisible behind the curtain walls of apologetics.  At that point people start to question, start to look for new insight...  And the cycle begins again.

I see this as a virtuous cycle, if - and only if - at the stage of looking for new insight the church looks to, and determines to be reformed by, the word of God in Holy Scripture.  If it does so, and if individuals within the church who are asking questions are looking to Scripture for answers, there can really be nothing to fear.  The old orthodoxies may have become clouded by time; they may simply have been valid and necessary expressions of the gospel in their context which no longer communicate as they used to.  In that case, the central concerns of the old orthodoxies themselves demand that the schemes and ideas be revisited and questioned.

So, always learning.  The church should not be afraid of doubters and questioners. They have the potential to help us to understand and express the gospel better than we would otherwise.

But there is a worry.  Today we seem to have broken the cycle, or rather we have got stuck in one part of it.  We are questioners and doubters.  The old orthodoxies do not speak to us or to the world around us as they once did.  We long for authenticity, something which does not just repeat the words our forefathers used, but speaks in our voice, addresses our concerns.

So far so good.  But are we going back to Scripture for answers?

I think for many of us the questioning and doubting has come to have value in itself.  We have become convinced that authenticity requires us to be always questioning, always holding opinions lightly, always doubting.  To poke holes in the old orthodoxies has become commendable for its own sake, and those who do it best are applauded.

Always learning, but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

This is a problem of reaction.  The old orthodoxies have become oppressive to us.  For many people, their doubting and questioning is a response to a Christian upbringing which squashed questions, denied doubts, simply asserted the old truths in the old ways.  In the name of authenticity, we cast them off.  This could have been a glorious moment, if only we had gone back to the Word.  If authenticity had been the first word in a conversation which had Jesus Christ as its final word, this could have been a reformation.  But instead authenticity became the first and last word.  Authenticity is certainly a human virtue, but to exalt a human virtue into the place of the word of God is idolatrous.  No surprise that we are left applauding those who, by teaching anti-gospel ethics in the name of authenticity, have subjected themselves to the Scriptural malediction that it would have been better to be weighed down and thrown overboard.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Burdens

Hardly an original thought, but it struck me again reading Isaiah 46 the other day - God carries us, and we do not carry God.

Everyone has a functional deity, even the most ardent atheist.  Everyone has something, or someone, for which they live.  Everyone has that place to which they go for security, meaning, identity.  Even if the nature of that god is pretty hazy, it is always there.

The claim made by Yahweh, the God of Israel, is not that he is the only god per se, but that he is the only living god, the only god who acts and intervenes, the only creator and sovereign.  Therefore all other gods are mere idols, things of human invention and bereft of life and power.

In Isaiah 46, the case is proved by carrying.  Here are the idols of Babylon:
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.


Idols are carried along, because they can't carry or save themselves. Babylon, says the prophet, will fall, and when it does people will scramble to save their gods, the gods who could not save them or themselves...  It is a pathetic picture, but of course it makes sense.  These gods cannot save human beings; they are themselves the products of human beings.

Yahweh. on the other hand:
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel,who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb;even to your old age I am he, and to grey hairs I will carry you.I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save."
God created Israel, and he will carry Israel.  He will save.

It seems a key diagnostic question: in my relationship with my god, who does the heavy lifting?

Perhaps this is easier to get wrong than we think.  In our lives, do we expect to find God carrying us, or do we expect to have to carry him?  In our Bible reading, do we mainly look to be 'challenged', rather than comforted or encouraged?  (An aside to preachers: it is a cheap win for us, 'challenging' people.  People naturally feel both guilty and like they need to fix it; are we encouraging them in that?  When did we last preach purely to comfort people?  When did we last end a sermon by proclaiming peace rather than activity?)  In all our living and doing, are we prepared to lean on him, the God who carries us?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Waiting

One of the most useful things, for me, in following the liturgical year, is that emotionally I'm not able to be everywhere at once.  The year helps me to order things, and brings an emotional focus to the different seasons.  So what am I meant to be feeling in Advent?

I've been thinking about waiting in the Psalms.  Waiting implies a situation which is not yet what you believe it ought to be.  For the Psalmists that is generally opposition to themselves and to God, but what has struck me as I have been reading over the Psalms which deal explicitly with waiting for God is that the feel of them can be very different.  Take Psalm 33, for example.  This is a Psalm of joyous worship - "shout for joy in YHWH you righteous!" - and absolute confidence - "he is our help and shield".  But there is still waiting.  "Our soul waits for YHWH".  Confidence here leads to waiting.  Because God is good, and sovereign, and cares for us, we will wait for him.  This is expectant, eager waiting.

Psalm 62 has a slightly different feel.  Without a doubt, the Psalmist is struggling in some way; it seems from opposition around him - "how long will all of you attack a man?"  But there is still a certain serenity about it.  "For God alone my soul waits in silence".  It seems to me that this is patient, enduring waiting.

Psalm 69 is different again.  Here the Psalmist's situation seems more desperate - "the waters have come up to my neck" - and his cry more anguished - "save me, O God!"  If he waits for God, it is not so much eagerly or patiently, but because he is forced to.  "My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God".  This looks like urgent, anxious waiting.

In Psalm 39, it feels as if the Psalmist has almost given up.  He waits for God only because nobody else can help him, since his problem is fundamentally his own sin and guilt.  "And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?  My hope is in you.  Deliver me from all my transgressions."  This feels to me like resigned, enforced waiting.

Then there are Psalms 74 and 79, with their impassioned "how long, O YHWH/God?"  The concern here is wider; it is not so much to do with the Psalmist's personal situation as it is with the state of the world, and particularly the way in which God is dishonoured - "is the enemy to revile your name forever?"  This is impatient, zealous waiting.

Waiting for God does not have one particular emotional or situational profile.  I am working on what that means for me personally, but I am encouraged that God meets us where we are - whether that is quietly confident in him, hugely saddened by the brokenness and rebellion of the world, or frustrated and impatient with his apparent inaction.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Choice, death, and begging the question

In the University of Oxford, there should have been a debate this week, hosted by a University pro-life society, about the cultural impact of abortion.  It didn't happen, largely due to protests by other societies. You can read about it here and here. There are lots of issues around this, including of course the right to freedom of speech that one ought to expect the University to uphold.  There is also the issue of poor argumentation.

Consider some of the comments from groups opposed to the debate.  Here is the Women's Campaign: 
It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies... The event description seems to suggest that increased access to abortion contributes to a ‘culture’ of ‘[treating] human life carelessly’. Framing the debate in these pro-life terms denies people autonomy over the choices they make regarding their own bodies,
Now, apart from the ridiculous nu-speak (cisgender?), and the bizarre idea that only people who have direct experience of an issue are able to have an opinion on it, the problem with this statement is that it assumes exactly what ought to be debated.  Is the question of abortion simply one of one's own body?  Is this about a man with a uterus-free body telling a woman with a uterus-equipped body what she ought to be doing with her body?  Of course, the reason any of us are pro-life in this context is because we are convinced that there is a third party present - a baby, a life, a real human being.  Speaking up on behalf of a third party who is powerless and voiceless is, I would suggest, always legitimate, no matter how much it impinges on someone else's autonomy.

Six years ago, I wrote something about clarifying the terms of the abortion debate.  At that time, I had the feeling that many people did not understand that this was primarily a debate about facts, not values.  I argued then that nobody thinks killing is okay; it is just that we disagree over whether abortion is killing, and that is a matter of fact to be debated.  I still think clarifying this would be really helpful.

However, I no longer feel so optimistic that sorting this out would move the debate forward very much.  It seems clear to me now that there is a value debate going on.  It is not a debate about life, primarily, but about choice.  The comments from feminist groups about this proposed debate make it very clear that autonomy is the ultimate value for them.  We must be able to choose; each individual must be able to choose.  Let me be honest: I am no longer sure that if these people were convinced that the human foetus were a real, living person waiting to be born, they would want to ban abortion.  In other words, I very much fear that choice has become so important that people would consciously kill and sanction killing in order to maintain their own autonomy.

There is, I think, a profound link between choice and death, in a way that there is not between choice and life.  None of us chose to live.  In Christian thinking, life is a gift.  Life is grace.  It is given to us.  To go on living is also not a choice (contra existentialism).  I cannot choose to keep living.  Of course, I can and do make myriad small choices which contribute to the upkeep of my life.  But none of them is a choice to live, and neither is the sum of them.  In the same way, I make choices that contribute to the continued living of others, most obviously my children.  But I don't choose for them to go on living (neither did I really choose for them to live in the first place; life simply isn't within my power or gift).

But I can choose to die, and I can choose to kill.  Whereas going on living shows my dependence, and contributing to the ongoing life of others shows our interrelatedness, choosing to die or to kill is all about autonomy.  A choice with complete finality, for me or for someone else; a real choice, a choice which shows that I am me and I can enforce my will.

And that is the culture of death that springs from radical individualism, and is masked by positive sounding words like 'choice'.  God have mercy on us.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

True and True-er

Consider with me, for a moment, the Magnificat - Mary's song of praise to the God who lifts up the humble and puts down the proud and mighty.  The song is prompted by Mary's realisation, in conversation with her cousin, that God is really doing this.  The Messiah is coming, and she, Mary, will be his mother.

Here are two things you could say about the theme of the song in the context of the gospel:
1.  God always works by turning things around - putting down the mighty and lifting up the humble - and he shows that supremely in Jesus;
2.  In sending Jesus, God works to put down the mighty and lift up the humble - and as we see that in Jesus, we see that it is also how God has always worked.

I would suggest that statement 1 is true.  It moves from a consideration of God's general providence to a consideration of the incarnation, and sees the latter as the high point of all God's dealings with his creation.  He has always worked like this, and here - in Jesus - we see the mountain peak of his working, standing out above all his other providences and provisions.

But statement 2 is true-er.  It moves from God's action in Jesus, and sees it not just as the pinnacle but as the source  of all God's dealings in providence.  The incarnation is not only the mountain peak, but it is also the fountain-head.  It is true that we see, in the light of the gospel, that God's general providence also has this character of reversing the apparent status of human beings; but now we see that providence as the outworking of an inner logic, and that inner logic is the gospel itself.

I suppose I would see the relationship between statement 1 and statement 2 as the relationship between a true statement on the one hand and the statement of the truth on the other.

One reason why this is important is that it helps us to read providence correctly.  Because, let's face it, we often see the proud and the mighty remaining pretty lifted up all around us, and the humble being ground into the dirt.  We could not actually write the Magnificat off the back of providence alone.  But if the gospel is true, then all of those occasions when we do see something that looks like this become little reminders of the great reversal that lies at the heart of the meaning of creation - the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Jesus Way

I have finally finished reading Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society.  It was not a very cheerful read.  The thrust of Ellul's diagnosis of western culture is that it has completely fallen prey to technique.  Things that were designed to make our lives easier have in fact taken over our lives.  Ends have disappeared; everything is about means.  We are becoming more and more efficient, more and more technically adept...  But why?  For what purpose?  We no longer know.  Everything truly human is suppressed in the rush to turn ourselves into part of the great machine.

As a sort of antidote, I have begun re-reading Eugene Peterson's book The Jesus Way.  My main practical concern reading Ellul has not been for society as a whole.  I find his picture sadly compelling, and it genuinely grieves.  But what troubles me more is the way the church has fallen prey to the same tendencies.  Peterson sets out the problem:  "More often than not, I find my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically embracing the ways and means practised by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations and causes...  But these ways and means more often than not violate the ways of Jesus...  Doesn't anybody notice that the ways and means taken up, often enthusiastically, are blasphemously at odds with the way Jesus leads his followers?  Why doesn't anyone notice?"

Peterson's point is that Christians so often try to do the work of Jesus - Kingdom work - in ways which stand in sharp contradiction to the Kingdom.  Why doesn't anyone notice?  I would suggest it is because these ways and means get things done.  Too often for our liking, Jesus' way looks like a meandering, long-way-round, slow, rough path.  We can apply a few simple techniques to get things done better.  We still have the same goals in mind, of course; we just have a better way of getting there.  And without a doubt, our ways and means work.  They grow churches, they stabilise lives, they increase knowledge.  Still the same goals...

Or are they?  What if Kingdom goals are not the sorts of things you can pursue any which way?  What if it is only Jesus' slow, wandering path that will actually get us there?  What if 'getting there' isn't really the point anyway; what if it's all about the way?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Performance

Here is some more joy from Jacques Ellul.  Painful to read, but important I think.

"Public opinon... is completely oriented in favour of technique; only technical phenomena interest modern men.  The machine has made itself master of the heart and brain both of the average man and of the mob.  What excites the crowd?  Performance..."

In other words, getting things done is all that counts.  Efficiency and achievement rule the day.

"What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.  The act is sufficient unto itself.  Modern man can think only in terms of figures, and the higher the figures the greater his satisfaction.  He looks for nothing beyond the marvellous escape mechanism that technique has allowed him, to offset the very repressions caused by the life technique forces him to lead.  He is reduced in the process to a near nullity."

The means has become the end, and everything genuinely human is in danger of being lost.  As Ellul goes on to say, when the increase in performance becomes the measure of all things, the individual human is lost; he becomes part of the mob, because only the whole can drive performance on.  Collective performance expresses the will to power of the mob, to which the individual will is sublimated.

The results are two-fold.  On the one hand, a mystical devotion to technique, expressing itself in absolute faith in progress; on the other, a "deep conviction that technical problems are the only serious ones.  The amused glance people give the philosopher; the lack of interest displayed in metaphysical and theological questions...; the rejection of the humanities which comes from the conviction that we are living in a technical age and education must correspond to it; the search for the immediately practical, carrying the implication that history is useless..."

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that this is indeed the world we live in.  And I want out.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Killing sin

I have recently finished re-reading John Owen On the Mortification of Sin, something which I do periodically and always find beneficial.  It has been a few years since I last dusted it off, and this time through I noted something I have not spotted before, and which struck me as very different from much of the instruction currently given on personal change.

Owen spends some time setting out what it means to mortify sin, and makes it clear that the power to so comes from the Spirit, and is given only to believers.  Then he gets on to some practical steps, of which there are nine, including "Get a clear sense of... the guilt... the danger... the evil... of the sin", "the first actings of sin to be vigorously opposed", and "Thoughtfulness of the excellence of the majesty of God".  These directions make up the bulk of the work.

But when he is done with them, Owen writes "Now, the things which I have hitherto insisted on are rather of things preparatory to the work aimed at than such as will effect it". In other words, think all you want about the guilt and evil of your sin, put as much effort as you can into meditation on the majesty of God, you still haven't even started to mortify sin.  For the actual battle against sin, Owen has only two directions, and since one of these is really just a reminder that this is the work of the Spirit, there is actually only one thing to do that belongs to the real fight against sin:

"Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin".

That's it.  Of course, we are used to exercising faith in Christ for the forgiving of our sin, but for Owen it is faith also which will kill it.  Setting faith at work here means regarding Christ as the one who will defeat sin in us, actively expecting him to do it, and then waiting for him to come through.

This is as far away from the CBT-disguised-as-sanctification that we often see as you can get.

Two things really strike me about this.  Firstly, it will only work if Jesus really is a gracious Lord, and really has conquered sin.  It's not a technique, but an appeal to a person with power to exercise it mercifully towards us.  It consists in expectation, and waiting, and looking, and longing.  In other words, it throws us absolutely on Christ, and not on any source of peace we can summon up in ourselves.  (Don't speak peace to yourself until God has spoken it to you, Owen says).

Secondly, this clarifies for me that sanctification, no less than justification, is by faith alone, because by Christ alone.  And this is both liberating and glorious.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Homo Economicus

Here is some cheery analysis of the subordination of human beings to economic techniques, from Jacques Ellul, writing originally in 1954:

The bourgeois morality was and is primarily a morality of work...  Work purifies, ennobles; it is a virtue and a remedy.  Work is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; it replaces God and the life of the spirit.  More precisely, it identifies God with work: success becomes a blessing.  God expresses his satisfaction by distributing money to those who have worked well...  This attitude was carried so far that bourgeois civilization neglected every virtue but work.

Sound at all like the Conservative Party Conference?

For the proletariat the result was alienation...  It might be thought that the primacy of the economy over man (or rather the possession of man by the economy) would have come into question.  But unfortunately, the real, not the idealized, proletarian has concentrated entirely on ousting the bourgeoisie and making money...  For the proletariat, as for the bourgeoisie, man is only a machine for production and consumption.

Sound at all like the modern Labour Party?

The counterpart of the necessary reduction of human life to working is its reduction to gorging.  If man does not already have certain needs, they must be created.  The important concern is not the psychic and mental structure of the human being but the uninterrupted flow of any and all goods which invention allows the economy to produce.

In summary:
Money is the principal thing; culture, art, spirit, morality are jokes and not to be taken seriously.  On this point there is once again full agreement between the bourgeoisie and the Communists.

Here's the thing - modern life is not characterised by the conflict between right and left.  That just sits on top of a very substantial agreement over ends and means.  The end is the efficient functioning of the economy, and the means is the efficient marshalling of human capital and the efficient exploitation of natural and artificial resources.  If there is some difference as to how these means are to be established, they are relatively trivial.  Capitalism and Communism are both examples of economic techniques which dehumanise man and turn him into a machine - and therefore each individual into a very small cog in the machine.

How is one to fight against this?  Surely not by planning a better economic or political life; this is just to replace the current technique with another.  We must refuse the invitation to be inhuman, even if that means refusing the invitation to be wealthy and comfortable.  We must live for other things - really live for them, not just use them as distraction and refreshment around the edges of our work.  For Christians and for churches, I think it means resisting the encroachment of technique in the Church.  We are not there to be efficient, or to utilise people, or to complete the plan, but to know and enjoy the living God.

And that is revolutionary.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ministering spirits



Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels.  Angels are funny things.  They are all over the place in Christian architecture and iconography, and for those in more liturgical traditions they form, in theory at least, part of the context of worship ('with angels and archangels...').  But I am not sure we have much practical use for them.  Indeed, they are something of an embarrassment.  It is just possible to construe worship of God as being compatible with our modern world; after all, God can be re-envisioned fairly easily in ways that fit the post-enlightenment paradigm in which we live.  But to believe in Angels puts you in the same realm as people who believe in the healing power of crystals, and people who take astrology seriously, and whoever it is who reads all those books about near-death experiences.

It's impossible to avoid the fact that one cannot tell the Bible story without angels. The presence of Gabriel at the Annunciation is sufficient to secure their place in the narrative. But other than these 'big events' - with which I suspect we are happy because of long exposure and also the sense that these are dramatic one-offs and therefore not normative - angels mostly appear within those parts of Scripture for which we have least time. The weird bits of the book of Daniel give a portrait of angelic warfare, linked to human prayer, which seems uncomfortably mythological. The various scenes in Revelation featuring angels are often so bizarre as to require explaining (away) in other terms.

All in all, I think for most of us angels are acceptable backdrop, so long as we don't seriously have to believe in them or their activity.

I think we could gain a lot by recovering a genuine, practical faith in the work of angels. For starters, a God who intervenes by the ministry of angels is very clearly not the god of the deists, and so a principal idol is cast down. Moreover, the presence of angels around us signals God's own presence in the mundane details of our lives.

Perhaps the biggest thing for me is that to believe in angels as the Bible portrays them is to believe that we are caught up in a world of spiritual activity - and more specifically spiritual conflict. The Archangel Michael cast down the dragon, who now roams the earth in fury.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What words mean 1: 'Extremism'


'Extremism' is all over the news at the moment, mainly in relation to the activities of the so-called 'Islamic State'.  Sometimes 'extremist' is used with qualifiers - 'Islamist extremists', 'Sunni extremists', 'religious extremists' - but often just by itself 'extremist groups'.

But what does 'extremist' even mean?  It conjures up an Aristotelian view of life in which the mean is the ultimately desirable thing.  For Aristotle (or at least the Aristotle of parts of the Nicomachean Ethics), extremes are in general to be avoided.  For example, on a spectrum of abject cowardice through foolhardy bravery, both extremes are to be avoided; the mean is a cautious bravery.  Is this the sort of thing that people mean when they talk about extremists?  Apparently not.  I don't think that when the BBC writes about Islamist extremists that they mean that one ought to strive for moderate Islamism, or that a Sunni extremist is someone who thinks and acts like a Sunni Muslim more than they ought to.

Can I suggest that what is actually meant by 'extremist' is usually something more like 'someone who doesn't take the blasé, indifferentist approach to questions of reality and life which is preferred within our liberal democracies'.  The average Westerner in the 21st century thinks that ultimate reality is pointless, and therefore holding serious beliefs about ultimate reality is pointless.  Arguing about metaphysics makes no sense.  Believing, on the basis of one's convictions about ultimate reality, that there is a right and a wrong way to live and to order society is just daft - and probably offensive.  Everyone ought to confirm to the bland, beige reality of secular life, and if they do entertain speculations about the true nature of the world and human life, keep it to themselves.

An extremist, then, is just anyone who thinks that things really matter, that there is a higher reality than the economy and a few beers at the weekend.  Western society, as a whole, finds such people intolerable.  People who try to live in a way which is logically and practically consistent with a particular view of ultimate reality are dangerous.

I am very much okay with extremism.  I think a society which cannot contain extremists is already broken.  The problem I have with IS is not that they are extremists (in the sense outlined above), but that the beliefs which they hold and try to live out are wrong, and therefore wicked.

My contention would be that the language of extremism is used to avoid having to ask questions like: 'are their beliefs about ultimate reality true or false?'  This is a question which must be avoided, because it leads to other questions like 'do Islamic beliefs (or some variant or subset of these) about ultimate reality lead, when taken seriously, to IS and its like?'  I don't propose to answer that; only to show that the point of talking about extremism is to put people a priori beyond the pale, so that we don't have to consider their actual beliefs, something that our mushed together Western non-culture will always struggle to do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Keeping quiet

If I had said "I will speak thus", I would have betrayed the generation of your children.

In context, this verse in Psalm 73 is saying something pretty controversial in today's world (and church).  The Psalmist had big doubts about the goodness of God, and he kept them to himself.  And looking back, he is glad he kept them to himself.  His doubts could have damaged other people.

I'm all for honesty, and I'm absolutely committed to the idea that the church is a community which accepts doubters, and doesn't discourage openness about struggles with faith.  But I do wonder whether sometimes 'personal integrity' is viewed as an ultimate good.  I think this, so I have to say it.  I doubt this, so I'd best express that.  This Psalm suggests that sometimes it would be better to have internal anguish rather than cause others to suffer.

I just thought that was interesting in a world where everyone has to 'be themselves', and a church where contradicting centuries of Christian teaching and belief is applauded as heroic so long as you are doing it for the sake of integrity.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

To the preacher

I hope the sermon preparation  has gone well; I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say (although this week it will have to be the recording, as I will be spending this morning teaching eleven year olds from Ruth 3 - awkward).  I just wanted to let you know what I need today.  It's the same as all the other weeks, but I know we're all forgetful and these things easily slip our minds.

I need Jesus.

I need Jesus, not as a slogan or a theological idea, but as himself, in person.  I need the God-man, who walked on the same globe on which I walk, and breathed the same air I breathe.  I need Jesus, not as an untouchable high and exalted deity, but as God-with-us, humbled to the dust - yes, even to the cross.  I need Jesus, not as a model of how to live, but as the giver of life, the conqueror of death, the one who spreads his righteousness over me.

For God's sake, and for mine (and for yours, for you shall be judged for what you say), don't explain the Bible to me.  Don't teach me some lessons.  Don't apply any moral principles.  For God's sake give me Jesus.  It is your sole commission to proclaim him as food for hungry souls, light for those in darkness, healing for the spiritually and physically sick, a Shepherd to those wandering alone, Lord and King to those adrift on a sea of their own contradictory desires.

For God's sake, and for mine, remember that I might die today.  I need comfort for death.  And remember that I might have to live tomorrow.  I need comfort for life.  Nothing can give it but Jesus.

For God's sake, and for mine, if the message you have prepared for this morning is not Jesus - if he is not the heart and soul of it - screw it up now.  Don't worry about preparing something else; there isn't time.  Just stand up and tell us all that Jesus died and rose for us.  Say it like you mean it, and that will be okay for us.

Monday, September 15, 2014

There is another country

I am finding this week rather nerve-wracking.  As someone who has always considered himself British, the prospect of my country being voted out of existence by about 4% of its inhabitants is alarming and depressing.  I still hope it won't happen.  I will be genuinely heartbroken if it does.

But I have been remembering in the last couple of days that this is normal.  It is right that we love the things around us, including the countries into which we find ourselves born; but all such things pass away.  I have been pondering the patriarchs as they are described in Hebrews 11.  They were reminded of the fact that they were strangers and exiles in the earth by their literal wandering; they did not have possession of the homeland they had been promised.  But they could have gone back to the places they had left behind.  They did not do so, because they desired a better country, a heavenly one, a city which God has prepared.  This is what I am preaching to myself, in case things go badly on Thursday: your citizenship never was really here, in this place; your love for this homeland is just an echo of the desire for another, true home; if all this goes, your identity is essentially untouched, because it is in Christ.

After all, if the UK endured to the final day, it would still be shaken and removed in the end, and I look for a Kingdom that cannot be shaken forever.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Word of his power

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high...

I have always found these verses from Hebrews 1 to be astonishing, but in recent times the reason for my astonishment has changed somewhat.  I used to be amazed that Christ, even during his incarnation, was upholding the universe by his word.  I am not sure that I had a clear conception of what this 'word' was or meant, but I suppose in a vague sense I detected an echo of Genesis 1 and the creation saga.  That the universe was sustained by a word is not surprising if it was created by a word, but that it should be sustained by the word of a human being - of the man Jesus - even as he lived among us...  Even as he died for us...  That was astonishing to me.

Now I incline to think somewhat differently.  I want to ask, what is this word of his power?  I think that the answer is that the word of Christ's power is the gospel of his resurrection - the story of his making purification for sins and sitting down at God's right hand.  That doesn't make the verses less astonishing.  But the astonishment now is not that the God-man could uphold the universe with a word; it is that the universe depends for its existence on the word of the victory of Christ. It is not astonishing that Jesus could somehow uphold the universe with a word whilst he was incarnate; it is astonishing that the incarnation of the Son of God is precisely the word by which the universe is sustained.  This is just another way of saying that everything exists for him, through him, and in him.  The gospel is the innermost logic of creation; it is the reason anything is.

Which also means that I now tend to detect in Genesis 1 an echo of Hebrews, and of John 1, rather than vice versa.  Jesus is the beginning, the centre, and the end of everything that God has made.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Being myself (3)

My 'self' - my identity - is above (hidden with Christ) and ahead (waiting to be revealed at his coming).  Let's be clear: this is my real self, my real identity now, based on what Christ achieved then.  But it is still concealed, even from me, and pursued by faith in expectation that it will one day be given to me.

Whilst all of this might seem to open up an intolerable gulf between my experience of myself and my true self (although is it worse than the non-Christian's awareness of the gulf between who they are and who they want to be?), it also lays to rest any notion that overcoming this gulf might be my work.  It is not.  My true self is not something to be achieved, but something to be received.  Moreover, identity is not threatened by any of the things that might seem to stand against it - my own under-achievement, other people's scorn, or even death itself.  No, death is the gateway to resurrection, and therefore to my true self.  The only thing that can really threaten my identity is unbelief, since faith is the (subjective) link between me and my identity in Christ (as the Holy Spirit is the objective link).

So, there is a certain relaxation here.  But we need to be careful: it's not the relaxation of saying 'God loves me just the way I am'; it's the relaxation of saying 'God loves me in Christ and will bring me together as one person united in him'.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Being myself (2)

If it is true that for those who do not know Christ self-identity is essentially a compromise between 'who I find myself to be' and 'who I consider myself to be (or want myself to be)', the gospel of Christ admits of no compromise.  It says, with the force of God's command, 'you must be yourself' - even as it says with the force of God's liberating good news 'you may be yourself'.  But command and permission are predicated on and derived from the simple factual statement: 'Jesus died and rose for you'.

Sometimes the NT describes a Christian as one whose self has been crucified with Christ, or as one who has died and been buried with him.  On the other hand, sometimes it presents an imperative - put to death your old self, kill your sinful deeds.  How can the indicative be true, and yet the imperative have force?  If my 'self' is dead, how can I kill it?  Conversely, if I must kill it, how can it be true that it is dead?

We need to remember that the death of the old self is accomplished in Christ - and we know this because of his death and resurrection.  But we do not see it.  It is a Christological reality, which means it is really true, as true as the victory of Jesus over death is true.  But it is not yet seen.  The Christian's life is hidden with Christ, to be revealed only when he is revealed.  It is not revealed even in part in this life, but is perceived only by faith - faith which is itself awaiting the fulfilment of the promise that what it believes will one day be seen and experienced.  That is why the apostle can write that he no longer lives, since Christ lives in him - but on the other hand, that the life he continues to live in the flesh (that is, with his old earthly self still there) is lived by faith in the Son of God.  Christologically speaking, something fundamental has happened; he had died.  But that is received at this point only by faith.

Nevertheless, faith that is really faith finds an answer in action.  It is an answer, not a new and independent action, but an answer nevertheless.  That answer is to bear witness to the reality as it is in Christ by putting to death the old self in the here and now.  We do not set out to crucify the self so that the old self might die; that would be a new action.  Rather, as an answer to what Christ has done, we set out to crucify the self because it is already crucified in him.  Our action is not the thing; it is the witness to the thing, the faint echo which nevertheless shows that the original Word has been spoken and heard.

Rather than a life of compromise, that sets up a life of conflict.  We look for a new self, perfected in Christ, currently hidden, coming with him.  It will be a resurrection identity; in continuity with this self we know, but transfigured.  To get to resurrection, you have to go through death.  The Christian life is death, putting to death.  That is why we are fools to live this way if Christ is not raised. If Christ is not raised, we should find a happy compromise between the person we are and the person we want to be, and learn to happy with ourselves.  But Christ is raised from the dead, and therefore we fight and die.  It is worth it.  80 years of constant tearful struggling for righteousness is worth it if just over the horizon there lies my resurrection, and that glorious moment when I see him as he is, and myself as I truly am....  It is worth it.

Anyone who says 'this is just the way I am' has left the way of Christ.

This is hard, so hard.  A narrow gate and a hard way.  But he is with us, and even on this hard way there are still waters and green pastures.  And he will give us rest.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Being myself

The only problem is, which 'self' should I be?

At the most basic level, all of us come up against the phenomenological self.  That is to say, the person we experience as ourselves.  The bundle of experiences, characteristics, and attributes - physical, mental, and spiritual - which are 'me'.  This is not the same as the person other people encounter; by (provisional, and in need of later tweaking) definition, a 'self' can only be self-experienced.  It is who I am to myself.

But then, I am also aware of another self, the sort of self I want to be, the aspirational self.  Sometimes I am just aware that the self I experience does not match up with well the person I like to think I am.  Sometimes, more painfully, somebody else describes me, and I realise that I am indeed 'like that', even though I feel that is 'not really me' - I am forced to own their description, even as I really want to disown it.  So a gap opens up between 'who I am' and 'who I want to be' - except more often than not, I do not see it that way.  Rather, I see 'who I am' and 'who I really am'.  Perhaps this is a delusion, but it is an important one; I harbour the thought that 'I' am really other than - better than - the self I experience.

The gospel of the world is that I can be, and should be, my aspirational self.  'Sanctification' is about being more myself, more the person I like to think of myself as being.  And when I hit a roadbump - when there is something in my phenomenological self which I don't seem to be able to adjust - I should adjust my aspirational self instead.  The goal is to bring the two together, one way or another.

But then there is what I will call the Christological self.  In Christ, my identity is not about my self-identity.  My true self has already been identified in him.  I don't see it now, because it is hidden.  But that doesn't mean it isn't real.  My self is determined, not by me, but by Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection.  Because here is someone - the only person - who really and truly knows me better than I know myself.  As my creator, he knows the self I was made to be; as my redeemer, he knows the self I have been eternally determined to be.

So the true gospel says: be yourself.  But not the self that is determined by the mere phenomena of your existence, or even by your dreams and aspirations, but by who Jesus has determined you to be.  And these are not the same.  Just because I see something in me doesn't mean it belongs to my truest self.  Just because I dream something doesn't mean it is who I really am.  I am who I am in him, and to be a disciple is to look to him and to walk like him.  And so to be myself.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A prayer

The Lord reveal himself more and more to us in the face of his Son Jesus Christ and magnify the power of his grace in cherishing those beginnings of grace in the midst of our corruptions, and sanctify the consideration of our own infirmities to humble us, and of his tender mercy to encourage us.

And may he persuade us that, since he has taken us into the covenant of grace, he will not cast us off for those corruptions which, as they grieve his Spirit, so they make us vile in our own eyes.

And because Satan labours to obscure the glory of his mercy and hinder our comfort by discouragements, the Lord add this to the rest of his mercies, that, since he is so gracious to those that yield to his government, we may make the right use of this grace, and not lose any portion of comfort that is laid up for us in Christ.

And may he grant that the prevailing power of his Spirit in us should be an evidence of the truth of grace begun, and a pledge of final victory, at that time when he will be all in all, in all his, for all eternity. Amen.

Richard Sibbes

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sanctus

The concept of holiness is all about the existence of boundaries, and the enforcement of those boundaries.  Leviticus is perhaps the book of the Bible which most clearly illustrates this.  The Tabernacle set up, with its Most Holy and Holy Places, symbolises the fact that God is separate.  The Priestly system reinforces this.  At the same time, the Levitical legislation separates Israel as a people from those around them, and creates and enforces a number of boundaries within the people, between clean and unclean.

There appear to be three main boundaries: firstly the boundary between God and not-God, or the Divine and the created - this boundary is implicit in Leviticus, and brought to the fore in the Deuteronomic and prophetic denunciation of idolatry; secondly, the boundary between Righteous and unrighteous - this is really the same thing, but viewed from the perspective of fallen humanity, and therefore if you like ethically rather than ontologically; and thirdly, the boundary between the dedicated and the ordinary - this can be positive (a thing is positively set apart for God and therefore not for ordinary use) or very negative (as in the judgement on the peoples of Canaan, in which some peoples are found to be so corrupt that they are to be devoted wholly to the Lord by destruction rather than treated as 'ordinary' enemies of Israel and Israel's God).  This third notion of holiness - instrumental holiness, if you like - runs through Old and New Testaments, but isn't what I'm talking about here.  I have in mind the distinction between God and creature, and between Righteous and unrighteous.

When we say that God is Holy, we mean both that he is inherently the reality denoted by these boundaries - he is God and not creature, he is righteous and not unrighteous - and at the same time that he is the active enforcer of these boundaries - he will be God and not creature, he will be righteous and not unrighteous.  Tied up with this latter is the idea that God will be seen to be God, and the Righteous One.  He will vindicate himself by enforcing these boundaries.

That is why an encounter with God in his holiness is a terrifying thing.  Think Isaiah before the altar.  As the Seraphim sing out 'Holy, Holy, Holy', he can only respond with 'Woe is me!  For I am lost!'  The fear is not unjustified - to come before the Holy One in an unworthy manner is death.  This fear is also the reaction to Jesus amongst those who understand who he is. The God who will be God over against his creature, and who will maintain and display his righteousness over against sinners - this Holy God, the God we encounter in Christ - he is to be feared.  God's holiness seems to demand separation.

And yet...

Throughout Isaiah's prophecy, God is 'the Holy One of Israel'.  As the Holy One he is, God binds himself to unrighteous Israel.  In just the same way, as the Holy One he is, God binds himself to his fallen creation.  He will be Holy in our midst, not Holy without us.

Where is the logic?

In John 17, Jesus declares that he sanctifies himself - sets himself apart as Holy - so that his people might be sanctified.  He enforces the boundary between God and creature, and between Righteous and unrighteous, by bringing them into the closest connection and yet being consistently God and consistently Righteous.  I think it would be fair to say that at the cross he is the boundary.  His existence is the Holiness of God, God in his active Holiness maintaining his right over against his rebellious creation.

It is just like Leviticus said it would be.  Why build this tent to keep God apart from the sinful people?  It was so that he could go with them!  The boundary is enforced because without it God cannot be with his people.  God maintains himself over against us so that he can confront us and relate to us.

God's Holiness in Christ should make us first fearful, and then thankful.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Unbalanced

Philip Hammond says that the UNHRC's decision to investigate potential Israeli war-crimes in Gaza is 'fundamentally unbalanced'.  I suppose what he means is that there is no similar investigation proposed of Hamas.  I've also noticed that there have been complaints on the Israeli side about 'unbalanced' media coverage, and an 'unbalanced' or biased perspective.

A few thoughts on not being balanced:

1.  Trying to be balanced about an unbalanced situation will always put you in a false position.  Balance is not, in and of itself, good.  Truth is good.

2.  In presenting certain facts, 'balance' can be used as a means to contextualise them away.  For example, it is a fact that the Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed over 700 people, most of them civilians.  Any attempt to add 'but Hamas fired some rockets too' on to the end of that is just an attempt to blunt the force of the acknowledged fact.  It ought not to be a required part of discourse that we always give all the facts.  Not only is this impossible, it is often simply a device to downplay one particular fact.  It leads into debates about the context (who, historically, is to blame for the situation in Gaza?) rather than about current events (why is Israel bombing children?).

3.  As a corollary of this, it cannot be demanded of anyone that they deliver unequivocal condemnations of Hamas before they are allowed to critique Israel.  One can be as critical of - and disgusted by - Hamas as one likes, but one is not required to establish this publicly and thus gain 'credentials' before one can say that the Israeli state is committing murder in Gaza.

4.  A call for 'balance' can just mean 'hey, try to see it from my point of view'.  In and of itself, this is a good thing.  It is good to see things from different points of view.  But in situations of injustice and oppression, not all parties have an equal right to demand that their point of view be acknowledged.  If you are the party in power, you do not have a right to demand that I see it from your point of view.  To give a relatively trivial example, if it is proposed to take money from some very wealthy people and give it to some desperately poor people, the rich do not have the right to demand that their point of view be taken into account.  In this instance, the power is all on one side (evidence for this: Palestinian losses versus Israeli losses; the years of the Gaza siege; the ongoing occupation...) and that side does not have the side to scream about their perspective being ignored.

The question the world needs to ask right now, irrespective of the wider issues, is this: is Israel indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A little bit less racist

A while back - say, 12 years ago - I would have been largely unmoved by the current atrocities being perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.   I like to think that even then I would have felt some basic human sympathy for people who have lost loved ones, and some sense of the injustice involved in the deaths of innocent children.  But it wouldn't have been the gut-wrenching, horrible feeling that I have today.  It wouldn't have left me wondering how we can all go on.  And it wouldn't have led me to desire, and in so far as it lies with me demand, the end to the system that stands behind this cycle of violence.  I would have been bothered, but not that bothered.

And this is why.

I was on the side of law and order.  It is funny how easily this works - it's a matter of language and perceptions.  Israel has an army - nay, a 'Defence Force' - whilst the Palestinians have 'militants'.  Israel has uniforms and organisation and rules, whilst the Palestinians have, well, Hamas.  My perception was that one side in this conflict upheld order and the rule of law, whilst the other represented chaos.  (I wouldn't have put it quite like that at the time, but there it is).

I was swayed by Biblical reminiscence.  I had been taught the Old Testament far too well to fall for the theological train-wreck that is 'Christian' Zionism, but I think looking back I was influenced by the fact that Israel was - well, it was Israel.  Although I knew that this was hardly the Israel of Scripture, still the name has resonance - and with it all the place names, all the bits of Bible that float in the back of your mind and seem to connect with something you're hearing on the news...

I was afraid of Islam.  I 'knew', back then, that Islam was the enemy.  I didn't know, because I hadn't bothered to find out, that there was a substantial Christian community in Palestine.  I also didn't know, as far as I can recall, a single Muslim personally, or at least not closely.  There was just a sense of background fear.  Christians spread this fear easily, and I had picked it up without doing any analytical thinking about it.

And fundamentally, I liked people who were like me.  This is what it comes down to.  Israeli society looked familiar.  I found Palestinian culture, in the almost-nothing exposure which I had through the TV, to be not to my taste.  In other words, I was a racist.

I hope that since then I have become a little bit less racist.  I know that in this particular case, I have come to see that it is my job to speak for those who are oppressed.  I try to do it, in my limited way.  It is my job to be heart-broken for every human being who suffers.  It is my job to see in each group of people those for whom Christ died, and therefore those who are of infinite worth.  It is my job to stand against those who would use power to keep others down, and then would use fear to legitimise their actions.

In this instance, it is my job to be against Israel, not as a group of people but as a state and an organisation which thinks that its own security is worth bombing children for.  Not because I've become all left wing (really, really haven't), or because of a general anti-colonial stance (it's all nonsense), or because I think Islam is okay after all (it isn't).  Just because of humanity, and fundamentally because of Jesus.

Thanks to all those who helped me along the way.  Sorry for who I was.  God help me be better.

And God have mercy on all those who suffer today.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Creation's choir


"And when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ in the promise and faith of the future revelation of his participation in God's glory as it is already given him here and now, he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation's choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise, but merely suffered and sighed, as it still does, that in inconceivable folly and ingratitude its living centre man does not hear its voice, its response, its echoing of the divine glory, or rather hears it in a completely perverted way, and refuses to co-operate in the jubilation which surrounds him"

CD II/1, p 648.

Or, as The Jesus Storybook Bible puts it:

"Even though people had forgotten, the birds and the flowers had not forgotten - they still knew their song.  It was the song all of God's creation had sung to him from the very beginning.  It was the song people's hearts were made to sing: 'God made us.  He loves us. He is very pleased with us.'

"It was why Jesus had come into the world: to sing them that wonderful song; to sing it not only with his voice, but with his whole life - so that God's children could remember it and join in and sing it, too."

Friday, May 30, 2014

How he loves us!

"God's loving is an end in itself.  All the purposes that are willed and achieved in him are contained and explained in this end, and therefore in this loving in itself and as such.  For this loving is itself the blessing that it communicates to the loved, and it is its own ground as against the loved.  Certainly in loving us God wills his own glory and our salvation.  But he does not love us because he wills this.  He wills it for the sake of his love."

-CD II/1, p 279

If you start your definition of God with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - not with a series of attributes...

If you allow your understanding of God to be shaped by the story of redemption, of Israel and the church and the world - not by philosophical speculation...

If you see God truly and fully revealed in Jesus Christ - not a God lurking in the shadows...

That is when you begin to see that loving is not something God does as a means to end, whether that end is the display of his glory or the salvation of his people.  Love is the definition of who God is, because for all eternity the Father has loved the Son and the Son has loved the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  The overflow of God's love to the world is simply God, being God.  It is his free love, it is grace, because there did not need to be anything outside of God to love at all, and given the fallen and rebellious state of what there is nothing is owed to the creation by God.  But when he loves it is nevertheless his nature.  This is who God is.

His love is first of all his eternal self-giving within the Godhead, and second of all his giving of himself in time in Jesus Christ.  He gives himself to us because he first of all gives himself to himself.  It is the love of God into which we are invited, in the unity of that same Holy Spirit who is in himself the love of Father for Son and Son for Father.

Behold, what manner of love..!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prisoners of Hope

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

This little section from the Palm Sunday prophecy is really striking to me.  What does it mean to be a prisoner of hope?  At one level, I suppose just that being a prisoner does not necessarily deprive one of hope.  In this instance, the prophet encourages God's people to expect a great reversal in their fortunes.  When their King comes, righteous and having salvation, they will no longer be prisoners.

At another level, I think the prophecy denotes that God's people under the Old Testament are actually kept imprisoned by hope itself.  Why don't they just disappear, assimilate, recognise that they can do very well for themselves as individuals in the new empires?  All it would take is the dropping of a few quaint stories and odd habits.  It would be undeniably easier, the best way to your best life now.  But for whatever reason, Israel cannot avoid the burden of the hope which God has given them.  Israel cannot accomodate themselves to the way the world is; they are constrained (imprisoned!) by a picture of how life and the world and humanity ought to be.  Therefore they suffer.  They do not merely hope in spite of suffering; they suffer because of hope.

Isn't this also true of Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross?

Is this where our daily wrestling comes from still?  We are imprisoned by hope, Easter people living in the world that is not yet raised, Jesus people living in the world that does not yet know him.  Stuff doesn't work.  We don't work.  Life isn't as it should be.  Disappointment, and striving, ultimately springs from hope, which still imprisons us here between the ages.

One little irony: many of those imprisoned by hope finally came to prefer the jail to the reality of freedom.  Their hope had been twisted, or perhaps deferred too long, and they could not bear the gap between their imaginations and the reality.  The gap is still there for most of us, I guess.  The lesson to learn from Palm Sunday is perhaps that we should be prepared to let our hopes - the little daily hopes and the great big kingdom hopes - be revised and refreshed again and again by the King who comes in humility.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Totally everyday church

I recently got around to reading Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.  It is very much the sequel to their earlier Total Church, and so I'm bracketing them both together as 'Totally Everyday Church', or TEC.  They're both great books, and my reaction to both has been pretty much the same.  So this is not a summary or a review - if you  want to know what the books say, read them; Everyday Church in particular is very readable, and would give you a good feel for TEC.  This is my reaction to this particular attempt to rebuild the church from the gospel up.

Initially, TEC is enormously attractive to me.  It is without a doubt a radical proposal: essentially, what if we went back to basics, stripped the church back to just a community believing the gospel and living in response.  What if we cut out some of the programmes, the big ideas, the meetings - and just loved one another and the world instead?  (Again, this is not what Chester and Timmis have written, it's my response to what they've written).  How exciting would that be?  I love the idea of really sharing life with one another, really being available to one another, really reaching out and having an impact on people around us by showing and sharing Christ-like relationships.  Yes please.  Let's do it.  Let's tear the thing down and re-build.

Interestingly, not much of the enthusiasm extends to the particular way that Timmis and Chester suggest we should do and be church.  I'm not a fan of the Crowded House model, in so far as I understand it.  I've never been clear where the local church actually is in this structure - is it the small group, or the Sunday gathering?  And I worry about the lack of emphasis on church officers, which seems unBiblical to me.  And I am not sur preaching is getting the central role it deserves.  And a hundred and one other things.  But it doesn't matter, because the authors are clear that they are not really selling the model.  Totally Everyday Church doesn't need to look just like this, it just needs to look like radical living oriented around gospel, community, and mission - and in principle, I'm up for it.

Then I remember a few things.  Firstly, I remember that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  Could I really stand to lose so much of the church tradition I love?  Then secondly, and much more importantly, I start to think about what it would really be like to have an open home in the way that is being talked about.  Now, I'm very definitely an introvert.  I love people, but I need alone time. If I don't get any over a prolonged period, I stop being able to engage with others and to give of myself in lots of ways.  How am I going to carve out that time from the totalising reality that is Total Everyday Church?  And then, I often only get ten minutes a day to really talk to my wife.  What if we're just settling down to our one dinner without children in the week when the doorbell rings?  And then thirdly, I remember that sometimes I just don't have it in me to be a Christian.  Sometimes I'm hanging on by fingernails, and it's all I can do to drag myself into the back of church and leave again as soon as it's over.  I suspect on any given Sunday that there are plenty of us in that situation.  At this stage, I can feel the burden, the huge unbearable burden, of TEC descending on me - it really is TOTAL, and I can't take it.

So I start to think, maybe Totally Everyday Church is not for me.  TEC sounds like it would work for activists, extroverts, and people who have it together.  But I can't see how I would fit in.  I think I'd ruin it.

In the end, I'm left feeling sad - thinking that there is better, more radical, more gospel-shaped church life out there which I will never be part of.  And I wonder how much of that is my temperament and character, and how much of it is my sin, and I can't unpick it.

But that's just my reaction.  Anyone out there doing it, following this sort of model, and finding that it works?  Anyone not following it got any pointers for how we take on board some of the passion and gospel priority without having to be people we're not?  Anyone just think I'm being daft and melodramatic?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Times and Seasons

As I sort of semi-observe Lent, I've been holding in my mind two themes from the Apostle Paul.  On the one hand, in Galatians, Paul frets over his converts observing "days and months and seasons and years"; he sees it as evidence that they are turning back from their profession of faith in Christ and returning to old pagan ways.  I don't imagine that the Galatians are actually being tempted back into paganism.  Common consensus is that they were just being encouraged to add some Jewish distinctives to their Christian faith.  But for Paul it is all the same.  They are turning back to slavery under the weak and beggarly elements of the world.

On the other hand, in Romans, Paul sees the observance of particular days as a non-issue.  It is indifferent, in so far as it does not become a badge of some superior spirituality.  If seasons are observed in honour of the Lord, fine.  If they are not observed, because of the Lord, great.

Of course, in neither of these cases is Paul thinking of the seasons of the Christian year, which were centuries away from being thought of.  His target is primarily Jewish observance, and some of his anti-observance rhetoric comes from his clear desire to maintain the truth that there is no need for Gentile Christians to become Jews.  But the flexibility in his approach does, I think, point to something deeper.

For Paul, the important change in time and season is not in any annual round of fasts and feasts.  For him there are only two times: this age, and the age to come.  In Christ, the age to come has already invaded this age, and by the Spirit more and more people (even as they live out their lives in this age) are participating in the age to come.  The decisive change in time has already occurred, and is now being applied through Spirit-empowered gospel proclamation.

So long as that central truth about time is not obscured, Paul does not care whether his converts observe yearly festivals.  Perhaps that is a helpful way for us to think.  As human beings, we naturally mark the passage of time.  In some way, we are always going to structure the day, the week, the year.  This is a natural phenomenon.  But it can be pressed into gospel use, in so far as we relate our time - the thoroughly relative and relatively unimportant changes in the passage of time which we are compelled to mark - to the real time, the fulfilled time, the arrival of the age to come in Christ.

If I observe Lent to the Lord, as a way of remembering him, then I am blessed.  If I turn it into a way of acting as if the new day had not dawned, then I am heading back into slavery.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Kant, Christ, and Page 3

Immanuel Kant famously declared that persons are end in themselves, and ought always to be treated as such.  They are never means to an end, and as such can never be fully absorbed into 'my universe', which revolves around me.  Other people are like the solid and immovable rocks in the midst of the sea of existence.  They are like myself, and I ought to recognise them as such.  They are not there to forward any of my schemes or goals for myself; they exist for themselves.

Whether Kant ever placed any of this on a sound footing is another matter.  The general consensus, with which I would broadly agree, is that he did not.

The Christian view of persons is similar, yet different.  The Christian cannot quite agree that persons are ends in themselves.  Perhaps from the human point of view this is a true enough rule of thumb, since certainly persons are not to be treated by me as means to my own ends.  But this is not because of some sort of moral autonomy or inherent value that persons have.  Rather, it is based on the fact that each person is a means to an end, but the end is not mine to decide or shape.  People exist, not for themselves, but for God.  Each person belongs to him by right of creation.  Each person ought to live for him in the here and now by right of redemption.  Each person will acknowledge him in the end, to his glory.  On a day to day basis, the impact of these mighty truths might look like Kantianism, but if you get under the bonnet everything is arranged differently, and runs on different fuel.

Which brings me to Page 3.  It is presumably a well known fact that The Sun, a British 'newspaper', carries on its third page a titillating photograph of a topless young lady.  This is regarded in many quarters as a piece of harmless fun.  For Kantians, and even more for Christians, it can hardly be called that.  Without a doubt, page 3 takes a person and offers them up as a means to an end - or several ends, including the gratification of middle-aged men and the sale of newspapers.  It is hard to see how this can be ethical.  Therefore, I support the campaign to end page 3, and would encourage you to do the same.

Let me just explain why I think the Christian position makes this opposition even more necessary than the Kantian one.  Firstly, it provides a basis which is otherwise lacking.  This person is God's property; they are not mine to enjoy.  And in answer to the objection that 'nobody makes them do it', we say that they are not themselves to give away any more than they are mine to take.  Second, it explains why the body matters.  There may be such a thing as a disembodied person, but there is no such thing as a (living) de-personed body.  The body, created by God and redeemed by Christ at the cost of his own body, is entrusted to a person and bound up so closely with their own personal identity that the final hope of Christians is precisely to have those bodies back, so that we can be whole persons.  Thirdly, the Christian doctrine of sin helps me to understand what that bit of 'innocent fun' might really be hiding, and helps me to see through the pretence that 'nobody is hurt' by this.  To dehumanise ourselves and others is to hurt ourselves and others.

I am not a feminist of any sort - but I am a 'personist'.  I don't think anyone should be treated as a means to an end.  Because in the end, at the end, we are all for God's glory.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Not strategic

I wonder whether we should just ban the word 'strategic' in church.  It pops up all over the place.  We have strategic ministries, there are strategic people groups, there is a strategic decision waiting for us.  For me, this is all a massive turn off.  I like my business speak to be confined to business, which church isn't.

But more than that, I think it is anti-gospel.

Strategic thinking works in actions and consequences.  It follows logical connections.  If we do this, we will be able to reach many more people.  This group is well connected, so if we make some gospel inroads here we will see the gospel spread more broadly.  This guy is gifted, so investment in him is likely to have a knock-on effect on society more broadly.

Is this not viewing people and situations according to the flesh?

When you consider that the sequel to the cross was the resurrection - and that the necessary precursor to the resurrection was the cross - what room is left for this sort of thinking?  The cross does not lead logically to the resurrection; the resurrection does not flow naturally from the cross.  God is in the business of turning dead ends into glorious triumphs, and plucking victories out of apparent blind alleys.

In a world where the gospel is true, and in a sphere in which the gospel is our model for thinking and action, we have to admit that we don't know what the connections are.  God doesn't move in straight lines, and so neither can we.  We don't know what he will do.  The only thing we can say for sure is that his modus operandi seems to involve, as an integral part, throwing things away, spending effort on apparently worthless things, sacrifices which don't seem to have pay-offs.

No more strategy, please.  Just preaching, loving, living.

Thanks.