Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Angels in the architecture

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus the angels are victorious in heaven and Satan is driven out.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus repentance is granted to sinners and we may rejoice with the rejoicing angels.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus we, like and with the innumerable angels, look forward to seeing you forever.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus all things are being brought together under him, and we and all the holy angels will be united in one family to the praise of your glorious grace.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus we can expect to be sinless like the angels, rejoicing forever with them.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus the angelic ministers of your grace are present with us to rescue even now.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Some good

I think it was Bonhoeffer who first sparked off the thought in me.  In Ethics (p339ff.) he discusses the appeal of the gospel to good people.  In tidier, more together, more legalistic times, he suggests, it is the publicans and sinners who find themselves in the vicinity of the church; but when things fall apart it is good people who find themselves there. "In times that are out of joint, when lawlessness and wickedness arrogantly triumph, the gospel will instead demonstrate itself in the few remaining figures who are just, truthful, and humane".  I wonder if we might be approaching just such a time.  As the tide of the new barbarism rises, might it be time for the church to acknowledge and reach out to all those of good spirit, who will perhaps find themselves surprisingly close to her despite their basic antipathy to her message?

Of course Bonhoeffer is not questioning, and I am not questioning, that the ultimate word about each of us in all our relative good and evil is that we are sinners who are redeemed only by the death of Christ.  But there are nevertheless many penultimate words which are spoken in our lives, words which are good or bad, and despite our common misery there are nevertheless shades of light and darkness.  The question for Bonhoeffer, and I think for us, is just how we apply the gospel to those who are, relatively, good, in the midst of a culture that has lost all its ethical bearings.

I do wonder whether, for starters, we might need to think about how we talk about sin.  Our talk about sin is so very often ethical in a way that is unhelpful.  Because people in the world tend to think of sin as 'doing bad things', we only add to confusion when we use ethical standards to talk about sin.  Moreover, we blur all those relative differences.  In our rush to say that all are sinners in need of salvation (which we must say and cannot say too often), we are heard to say that everyone is ethically just as bad as their neighbour.  Since this is manifestly not true, the point misses its target and nobody is convicted.  Moreover, in setting ourselves in this way against both the good and the bad, we come across as indifferent to whether people are 'just, truthful, humane' or not.  Sometimes I worry whether that is because we are in fact indifferent...

Let us rather say that all the goodness in the world and in individuals is orphaned goodness.  It springs from Christ, as all good things do, but it is disconnected from him, and therefore powerless both to stand against evil in the world in any ultimate way, or even to defend itself from the corruption which threatens it.  Goodness without Christ is powerless to prevent itself from becoming self-righteousness; purity without Christ is powerless to prevent itself becoming pride...

The wise gospel preacher will not hesitate to say that it is sin - the ontological and relational alienation from God caused by our species-wide and yet all too individual rebellion against him - which has left this ethical goodness orphaned and pathetic in a world of evil (the world out there and indeed the world 'in here').  The invitation, then, to the good person is to see the good in the world, and in themselves, in the light of the cross: only at the cross could this good be secured and won; only at the foot of the cross can it begin to make sense in a world gone wrong.  Repentance, then, is not from the good, but towards the very source of the good - and therefore away from dead self, which even when it brings forth good is in the very midst of evil.

After all, there are many who say "who will show us some good?"

Thursday, September 03, 2015


The thing I struggle with - the thing that today is hard to take - is that life just goes on.  Last night I mowed the lawn, and watched the Bake Off, and children died crossing the sea.  Today I will sit in the office, and sort out my spreadsheets, and children will die.  Isn't it obscene that we all just carry on?  Isn't it appalling that we get on with our lives?

I mean, what is that about?

Of course it has to be that way.  Of course it does.  The show must go on.  But maybe, just maybe, every now and again, the show can just stop.  Stop and acknowledge that everything is really, seriously messed up.

There are practical things we can do - and goodness knows I need to do more.  I genuinely worry that one day I will hear a voice say 'son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while this little boy washed up dead on the beach'.  Yes, there is stuff I need to do.

But what I really want to do is just make everyone stop.  Because the juxtaposition of ordinary life and horrific suffering is more than I can bear.  Please, can't we just stop?  Can't we all see the obscenity of it all?

So here is one thing I will do.  On this coming Monday, I will fast and mourn and pray - because we should, shouldn't we?  Of course, life will go on, but I will do something to mark what is happening, and I will repent of my part in it, and pray for change.  I will fast, because enjoying good things right now seems obscene to me.  Ordinarily that's something I would do in private, but maybe - perhaps - you feel the need to stop as well, and you'd like to join me.

Now, as a final thought, imagine this post liberally scattered with expletives.  That's how I wrote it, and how I read it back to myself now in my head.  But I deleted them all so as not to offend sensitive readers.  And isn't that just obscene as well?

Wednesday, September 02, 2015


Blogger tells me this is my 400th shiny ginger thought. It's nice that they keep track of these things. I'm moderately surprised that I've kept at it, especially during the years when I barely mentioned a couple of posts a month (I'm looking at you, 2013). But here we are: 101 months after we started. 400 posts. Reading back, I'm pleased to see that there's not ever so much I would un-write, given the chance, although there is plenty that I would write in a different way if I were doing it now. Glancing over the reading stats, I'm always surprised to find that posts which I think are both well written and profound, tackling important issues, often attract much less attention than things I rushed off one morning with very little reflection at all. Perhaps I just don't know what is really important. Perhaps I just haven't communicated it very well.

Anyway, by way of a review, here is a sort of summary of some of the big themes of the last 400 posts.

1. Karl Barth. I was just getting going with Barth, really, back in the day, but he made his first appearance on the blog in April 2007. Over the last 8 years he has gradually edged out John Owen as my go-to theologian - not that I don't still love a bit of Owen. It is just that Barth seems to speak into today with much more power. I explained the main reason I love him back in 2013 - "For Barth, God is not so much the One who is there as the One who comes. God comes to us in Christ, moves toward us in his Spirit, encounters us in the Scriptural witness. Barth's God is on the prowl..."

2.  Politics.  I've written more about politics than I originally envisaged.  One of the interesting things for me, reading back, is that I've definitely shifted - fairly recently - from a thorough-going conservatism to something more of a middling liberalism.  I am still basically an old-school Tory in my heart, but increasingly I feel that conservatism really requires a society with a shared value system and a common story, and we don't have either; moreover, the clumsy attempts to create and enforce a shared value system have terrified me.  For the society we are, rather than the society I would love us to be, I think liberalism is probably the only way we can avoid imploding.

3.  Anthropology and ethics.  Perhaps slightly less dominant themes, but still taking up more space than I would have predicted back in 2007.  Back then I imagined I was more 'into' theology proper.  Now I tend to think that the point at which Christian doctrine is most challenged - and most ill-equipped and poorly-prepared to meet the challenge - is at the point of discussing what a human being is and what they ought to do.  Sexuality is of course one big arena, but it's actually much wider than that.  I wonder if one of the big themes of gospel proclamation in the near future will need to be that the gospel, and only the gospel, makes us really and truly human - and therefore safeguards all our genuine human concerns.

4.  Church and worship.  I guess largely driven by my move away from parachurch being my primary sphere of ministry as I finished working with UCCF in 2009, and then by involvement as an elder in the church, I've been thinking a lot about what church is and how it ought to do the things it ought to do.  This is ongoing work in a big way, and I'm aware that less of it has gone into practice than I would like.

And there have been lots more.  I was trying to pick some favourite posts, but struggled.  The most read and most commented on post remains my review of a friend's book on Zionism - boy, that was a fun couple of days!  That's a post I would have written differently today - I think I would have been stronger and yet softer, if possible.

So anyway, 400.  At this rate it will be 2023 before we get 400 more...