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


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


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."