Monday, 23 December 2013

Long Have We Waited

The long wait is nearly over. Days have passed like years in this all-too-expansive winter season.

The countdown that began so long ago is almost at an end.

What started as a gentle interest has now turned into an all-consuming longing.

The naysayers may pour scorn but we ignore them in our collective obsession.

Prayers are offered to bring the fated day nearer but still we must wait a little longer.

It has seemed at times as if it would never come. And yet soon it will.

All else is set aside, for nothing now is as important as this.

This day is a time for family, and it is only fitting that families will be brought together for the occasion.

Soon the blessed day will appear and the memory of waiting will be at an end.

That's right. The new season of Sherlock is almost upon us.


I may be overstating things a little. Nevertheless, it struck me at the start of the advent season that what I was most anxious for in December wasn't Christmas (or, by extension, the celebration of God being with us) but Sherlock. Advent is supposed to be about waiting. It's supposed to be a season of anxious longing. When we remember that there was once a time before Jesus came. When we contemplate what it's like to be in need of Jesus before welcoming Him on Christmas Day. Of course, most of our society has abandoned advent altogether in favour of an extended, all-out public holiday. This is not necessarily a bad thing but I believe that there's something to be gained in returning to the spirit of advent.

There have been times this advent when I've been completely unenthusiastic about Christmas. I'm sorry. I feel like I'm letting the side down in even admitting that. I've certainly felt exhausted and in need of the rest that Christmas brings. That part I value. But I've also been disillusioned, at times, by the whole enterprise of Christmas - by the church services, by the parties, by the preparations. I don't want to bring out here the much-repeated, and well deserved, critique against how the season has turned into a capitalist money-spinner. My issue is instead with my (lack of) enthusiasm for Christmas.

Advent is as good a time as any to reexamine what it is that we really care about. What are our priorities in life? What do we value? And are we doing a good enough job at prioritising those things above the trivial? I found that Sherlock was way too far up the list. Series two ended dramatically with Sherlock faking his own death by jumping from a high-rise building. Two years have passed. Two! You may not care about Sherlock but in that case you are part of a pitifully small group of people and can be discounted. (I jest). Part of the attraction of the new series lies in the intelligent, dynamic and deliciously entertaining television that Sherlock always manages to produce. Yet the bigger draw is potentially the revelation of how Sherlock faked his death. Millions have been gripped by the conundrum of how Sherlock pulled off the impressive stunt. The news of how he did it will be a revelation.

And yet some news, which is genuinely more important, is already out there. It is fundamentally good . It is life-changing. It is much more deserving of our excitement. It is the news that we are not alone. It is the news that we don't have to guess what God's like because He has revealed Himself to us. It's the news that God isn't 'out there, man'; He's knowable because He wants us to know Him. It is the news that God is on our side. It is the news that God saw the mess of our world and was willing to do something about it. It is ultimately the news that God was willing to die to give us life. That counts as being "good news that will be a joy to all the people" (Luke 2:10; see also Isaiah 52:7).

There's nothing special about advent unless we're intentional about it. Yet in advent, as always, we get to refocus on what deserves our attention. What could warrant our interest more than that kind of God?

I'm praying that your Christmas is exciting for all the right reasons.

The Power of the Light

My cartoon, 'The New Atheism', with apologies for the poor quality (I'll scan a proper version in due course)

A couple of days ago a friend of mine provided a link to a wonderful article in The Scotsman by David Robertson. It was a great encouragement to see Robertson so positively and lucidly providing a faith-filled perspective on Christmas and on faith in Scotland in general, especially in a secular publication. As so often, however, I couldn't resist scrolling down to the comments section beneath the article. Now comments sections can be wonderful things, providing a platform to a much wider spectrum of opinions and viewpoints than those that find their way into the mainstream press. Comments can be enlightening or drive you crazy, depending on what they're saying. This particular article featured a comment by a poster named 'voice of reason'. You can read the comment in full for yourself, but essentially 'voice of reason' was proclaiming that Robertson's article constituted "barking mad religious nonsense", "inaccurate superstitious drivel" and "ravings". Whether of not 'voice of reason' would align him/herself with the new atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens and co.) the sort of language used certainly seems similar. It included a belief that we have progressed from theism as a society ("Thankfully more and more people are waking up to the big delusion of religion") and a disdain for organised religion (Christianity's "regime to impose itself on people").

I'll be honest. The comment got me really riled up. I'm a thinker and also take a certain measure of enjoyment from the intellectual jostling involved in arguing over the big issues of life. I like to think of myself as a proponent of logical theism. And the comment made me angry because it implied that my very real faith in Jesus was delusional. Now this wasn't the first time that I'd encountered the ideas of fundamentalist atheism. Nor was I unaware that the comment was probably generating precisely the sort of response that it was intended to engender (we're all familiar with the concept of a troll). Nevertheless, I responded by pacing up and down, coming up with deft counterarguments and generally working myself into a huff. 

For example, it enraged me that someone calling themselves 'voice of reason' could apparently be so unaware of the irony of their statements: accusing theists of small-mindedness in precluding atheism from the realms of logic whilst simultaneously doing the same thing to theists. I found myself confronting the opinions with alternative lines of argument. Then it struck me that all this posturing to atheism is entirely unnecessary.

Consider the bizarre nature of militant atheism (the kind of atheism that actively seems to impose unbelief on others). I've previously written on the reasons why it makes sense for Christians to share their faith: firstly, because it's true and, secondly, because God provides the most satisfying life on offer. By contrast, it makes very little sense for atheists to share their lack of faith, precisely because it's the sharing of absence rather than substance. The atheist can suggest that a life lived without God is a happier one than a life lived with God but they cannot actively transform a person's life since they categorically deny that supernatural transformation is possible. Indeed, many atheists seem to have a tough time in convincing anyone that they are living a contented life. Often they seem to be more consumed by anger than peace. If someone is convinced that there really is no God then surely it's enough to vehemently hold that opinion (after all, I'm not suggesting that apathy is a better alternative). If the issue of God will never be conclusively settled in one direction or the other and if atheists aren't obviously happier than non-atheists then trying to rob other people of faith certainly seems illogical (as David Mitchell has persuasively outlined).

Funnily enough, I have a lot of respect for atheists. It seems to me to be the most logical worldview available after Christianity. I don't mean that statement as cocky oneupmanship; it's my seriously-considered viewpoint that has been generated by substantial thought. I do genuinely appreciate both the attraction of a universe without a deity and many of the reasons why our existence appears to some to be Godless. I don't want to castigate atheists. In fact, I relate to atheism on many levels. But militant atheism seems to be as upsetting as it is illogical. It is sad to me that some people appear to take such a level of personal satisfaction in arguing that there is no God. I have no desire to look down my nose at atheists and pity their unbelief. But neither do I have any desire to share in the aggressive evangelistic rhetoric of the militant atheists.

When faced with the bravado that some militant atheists display in their statements about God many theists feel threatened. The temptation is either to worry that faith might be delusional after all or else to fight back with similar ferocity. It might be more sensible to let our faith do most of the talking. One of the highlights (doh!) of Robertson's article was the analogy of light, which is a familiar part of the imagery of advent. The thing about light is that it doesn't have to fight the darkness. It repels it simply by being light. "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it" (John 1:5). I'm not denying that spiritual warfare is a reality (Ephesians 6:10-13), just that Christians don't need a militant attitude to debating faith. A siege mentality is entirely unnecessary because atheism itself can pose no threat to anyone. Simple, yet reasonable, faith is the light that withstands and overpowers all darkness.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Hobbit: Faith (and Doubt) in What is Written


OK, I admit it. Blogging on The Hobbit - that's kind of what I do. I loved the new second instalment, although not with the same vigour as The Lord of the Rings cinematic adaptations. And once again a scene with Bilbo caught my eye. (To fans of the book, I can only apologise if I have butchered the narrative at any point).

Much of the purpose of the mission undertaken by Bilbo and the dwarves originates in a prophecy; more specifically, it originates in a prophecy which is written down. The company aim to take back the Misty Mountain, but their hope of entering the mountain lies upon their locating a secret door. The door will be locked but if they arrive at just the right moment then ancient moon-runes assure them that the doorway will be revealed:
Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole.
Bilbo and the dwarves finally make it to the mountain and spot a staircase that leads up onto a ridge. But when they reach the ridge they are quickly disheartened. There is no doorway to be seen. They have arrived on Durin's Day itself and the sun is setting, meaning that they have little time to locate the door and use their key to open it. They try battering the stone. They try everything. Eventually the party's leader, Thorin, tells the dwarves to give up. The sun has gone down. Their whole mission has been in vain.

Is that it? Was the prophecy...wrong?

Everyone else leaves but Bilbo continues to wrestle with these questions. The instructions of the runes were precise and couldn't have been misunderstood. And yet, despite faithfully trusting in their accuracy, they don't seem to have been borne out by reality. That's when the moon comes out. Suddenly Bilbo hears a knocking sound and sees a thrush by a doorway which is given visibility by the new beams of moonlight. The dwarves return and open the door, giving them the access to the mountain that their whole quest has depended on.

This is where I fit in. My relationship with that thing called Scripture is a strange one. I'm currently taking a degree in Biblical Studies and yet, like many other Christians, I haven't always felt that comfortable with everything the Bible's got to say. Sometimes that isn't a big deal. I'm never going to understand everything, right? Sometimes it's been a process of monumental soul-searching. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? How can I know that He did? It is enough that there's a document where that's written down? Each question deserves its own process of enquiry and careful thought but I don't want to focus on any one issue in this post. All I want to do is write about the process of doubting the Bible.

It's easy to come up with a simple value-based assessment of what a Christian ought to make of doubt. Faith, good; doubt, bad. Yet I'm increasingly aware that there's a place for doubt in faith. That's not to say that doubt is necessarily helpful or healthy. Nor is it simply to acknowledge that doubt is a reality for the vast majority of believers at one point or another. Instead, I've realised that faith does not mean being 100% sure 100% of the time. Faith can seem like this intangible substance, something that's 'out there' somewhere and which some people magically find. Some people talk about it as if it were elusive: "I'd like to believe, but...". I'll be the first to believe that the Bible can be confusing at times. But my assessment of it, and especially of how trustworthy it is, is entirely up to me. Faith is my call and my decision. Doubt doesn't rob me of faith. It may be able to challenge and strain it but it can never rob me of faith because faith is my decision. God has made it that way. No matter how faith-repellent my situation may appear I give faith substance simply by making a choice.

The Bible contains people of astounding faith but it also records people who doubted. Even the accounts of the resurrection, where Jesus physically appeared to His disciples, are littered with ordinary people who struggled with faith. Jesus's final appearance is accompanied by the simple phrase, "but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17, NIV). The initial response of some of the disciples to the news of the resurrection was to dismiss it "because it sounded like nonsense" to them (Luke 24:11). And John's Gospel includes the story of Thomas, who decided that he would only believe when he put his finger in the resurrected Jesus's wounds. Jesus's response is an encouragement to those who want to believe but find it a struggle: "You [Thomas] believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly blessed." (John 20:29). That's us. The ones who haven't physically seen the risen Jesus but believe based on the testimony of others. Testimony that's written down.

 
It seems to me that in the movie Bilbo shows faith at the precise moment when everyone else doubts. And yet his faith is predominantly found in staying put and wrestling with his questions about the runes. It's not in grand declarations regarding their trustworthiness. Poignantly, if he didn't go through that process then the mission really would have failed, for no-one would have remained on the ridge to witness the revelation given through the moonlight. In other words, choosing to stay put and question the runes was in itself an act of faith. In the midst of the crisis that faith is vindicated and Bilbo finds that his faith actually makes sense. Doubt was involved but was ultimately superseded. Bilbo shows us that faith is not always straight-forwards, created in an impulsive rush. It is a decision, and one that can be made in the midst of doubt.


Sunday, 13 October 2013

Bow, Don't Fall


The fear of the Lord. Could I have picked a heftier topic to blog on? Let me tell you where I'm going with this one. It seems like we're frequently offered two extremes on the fear of God: either we say that it's really just respect and awe-struck wonderment (in which case, why use the term 'fear'?) or we say that God genuinely wants us to be terrified of Him. I'm not sold on either one.

The book of Revelation contains a vision right near the start where John, the guy writing the book, has a vision of Jesus. John's terrified: "When I saw him, I fell down at his feet like a dead man" (Revelation 1:17). This is the definition of a scared man. All he can do in response is to fall on his face. I'm wondering if John provides us with a good model here. Is the correct response to God to fall face-down in fear?

Be Afraid (Be Very Afraid)

As I said, it's been suggested that all the Bible means by the fear of God is a sense of wonderment, like what you feel when you see an amazing sunset, for example. Taking a look through Biblical references to fear doesn't seem to back this up, though. When Jehoshaphat told his newly-selected judges to "fear the Lord" (2 Chronicles 19:7) he wasn't inspiring them to worship God with amazement but to "watch what [they] do" (v6,7) because God was going to be supervising their judgements (and wouldn't look kindly on bribery). Similarly in Isaiah 8:13 "the Lord-All-Powerful...is the one you should fear. He is the one you should dread". In Psalm 33:8 "all the earth should worship the Lord; the whole world should fear him." Psalm 22:23 says, "fear him, all you Israelites". In Proverbs 9:10 "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (ESV). And 2 Corinthians 7:1 encourages us to "cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God" (ESV). In fact, for Psalm 36 those who "have no fear of God...think too much of themselves so they don't see their sin and hate it (v1-2).

This doesn't seem to add up. There seems to be something more than a concept of respect or awestruck wonder at play here. 

The God Who Lifts Us Up

Great. So all we're left with is abject terror, right?

I said that I wasn't happy with that position either. Perhaps the problem is that we're seeing it in the wrong light. Perhaps we're defining the fear of God as quaking in our boots before a deity who wants us to be afraid for the sake of feeling fear. Perhaps the fear of God can actually be a healthy thing.

Is there evidence for this in the Bible? You bet. In Jeremiah 32:39 God says of His people, "I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them". In Malachi 2:5 God's covenant with Levi is described as being both a covenant "of life and peace" and "a covenant of fear" (ESV). As a result, Levi "stood in awe of [God's] name". Psalm 76:7 says this about God: "you are feared; no one can stand against you when you are angry". Here God turns His anger into judgement that secures justice for the poor (v9). In Acts 9:31 we are told that "the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied" (ESV). In all of these passages proper fearfulness of God in individuals and in communities brought about healthier and more beneficial situations.

Let's get back to our friend John. Jesus's response to John's fall isn't to leave him grovelling on his knees. He reaches down, gives John His right hand and tells him, "Do not be afraid". This passage is bursting at the seams with allusions to a beautiful vision in Daniel 10 where Daniel has a similar experience. Faced with an overwhelming vision of a heavenly being, Daniel loses his strength (v8) and falls asleep on his face (v9). This is what happens next: 
Then a hand touched me and set me on my hands and knees. I was so afraid that I was shaking. The man in the vision said to me, "Daniel, God loves you very much. Think carefully about the words I will speak to you, and stand up, because I have been sent to you." When he said this, I stood up, but I was still shaking. Then the man said to me, "Daniel, do not be afraid."                                                                           Daniel 10:10-12
Again, he loses his strength and bows face-down before the being (v15). Again, the being touches him, restores his strength and tells him, "Daniel, don't be afraid. God loves you very much" (v16-19). The beauty here is that fear is not the end point. It is not fear for the sake of fear. The fear may be appropriate considering the overwhelming nature of the heavenly being but, once Daniel appreciates how dauntingly ill-equipped he is for this heavenly encounter, God lifts him up. Fear is not ultimately what God wants for His children. It is a necessary pit-stop rather than the final destination.

It's similar to humility. The point of humility is not that we should be endlessly self-deprecating. It is that we should recognise our proper place in relation to God. Once you become "humble under God's powerful hand" then He "will lift you up when the right time comes" (1 Peter 5:6). God's desire isn't to cut us down; it's to lift us up in the right state.

All this is apt in relation to what falling on your knees means elsewhere in Revelation. Scenes of worship permeate through the whole book (4:8-11, 5:9-14, 7:11, 11:16, 19:4). It makes a distinction between proper worship, which is attributed only to God, and improper worship (for example, worshipping angels; 19:10, 22:9-10). When fear is gone then we find ourselves released to worship God with freedom. To bow down on our knees in praise rather than fall on our face in fear. That's when our spirit of fear is replaced with a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV) and when we find that God's perfect love drives out all our fear (1 John 4:18).

Now that I can live with.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Is Swearing Sinful?


Swearing seems to be one of those things that Christians feel that they shouldn't do without really knowing why. It's generally frowned upon and viewed as a 'worldly' thing despite the lack of a clear basis for that decision. Christian culture is one thing; a Godly lifestyle founded on Biblical ethics can be something else altogether. So it's worth asking: is swearing actually sinful or is it just part of the Christian status quo?

The church culture that sees swearing as negative is in no small part influenced by family values. Christian kids are brought up to keep their language clean and even adults whose speech is peppered with f***s tell their kids off for swearing because that's supposed to be part of good parenting. People who grow up in the church think of swearing as a horrendous evil to be avoided at all costs. So swear words are cast out of the church and a leader who swears from the front risks being tut-tutted, rebuked or - in some churches - fired. Yet what counts as taboo in the church isn't necessarily sin in God's eyes.

The red herring, in my view, is seeing certain words as inherently sinful. I once went to a talk by someone from the British Board of Film Classification, which gives ratings to all the films that are released in the UK. He said that the difference between a 15 and an 18 rating can be in the usage of one strong word. You can have fifteen uses of 'f***' and get a 15 but if someone says 'c***' then the rating goes up. The reason is that some words are perceived to be more offensive than others. Yet a word by itself isn't sinful; it's in its use as an insult, an angry outburst or a frustrated comment that it creates sin. The issue isn't taboo language, it's heart attitudes. In my view, calling someone a nincompoop and calling someone a c*** amounts to the same thing: it's a word spoken as an act of aggression to bring someone down. The anger/hurt/ill-feeling is the problem, not the use of a 'naughty' word.

Nevertheless, that's not to say that swearing is helpful or beneficial. Someone who lives to a soundtrack of 'f***ing this' and 'f***ing that' isn't necessarily going to find it easy to love people and live with peace. The words we say are an indication of what's going on inside us. Jesus taught that "every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit" (Matthew 7:17). If there's negativity coming out of your mouth then it's a sign that there's negativity in your heart. Part of speaking positively is using restraint and thinking about the words you use but ultimately nothing can beat tackling the root issue in the heart. At the end of the day, the inner self is where everything sinful comes from (Matthew 15:18-19).

The aim should be having a pure heart that produces pure words that don't contradict our worship of God (James 3:9-10) but which instead build other people up (Ephesians 4:29). It makes sense to me that swearing shouldn't be commonplace for a Christian and that Godly language should generally exclude certain choice words. But placing a blacklist on a selection of taboo words is too simplistic and conveniently ignores the heart attitudes behind our language choices. There's no sin in using s*** as another way of talking about poo. Similarly, sometimes you just have to say that you've had a crap day; 'bad', 'rubbish' or 'awful' simply won't cover it. God's going to judge us on the stuff that really matters, not on whether we rock the boat of church culture by using a word that's actually doing no harm.

So is swearing frowned on in churches? Sure. Is it helpful and positive? Not usually. Sinful? Look at your heart.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Dead Shepherd

The following is a short story that I originally wrote in February 2011, based on Zechariah 13:6. I share it here in part because I'm interested in introducing stories onto the blog but (by in large) because I've been too busy to devote too much time to blogging. Never fear, more fresh content will appear shortly. In the meantime, here's a story.

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The shepherd gasped, and reached to feel the trickle of blood flowing gently from the wound in his side with his fingers. Time seemed to falter and blur as though unsure of itself. Stronger than anything he felt the hardness of the ground beneath him and the harsh, irrepressible reality of his lifeforce being emptied from him.

His flock had gone, running in the face of danger. They must be far away from here by now, he thought. Perhaps he should have expected them to leave. They were sheep after all and, though it didn't characterise his flock in his eyes, wandering was what they had a tendency to do. Yet the pain he felt now would be easier to bear and the loneliness less intense with them by his side. They were family to him, not just sheep to control or keep in line. He knew each one intimately from those nights in the field, the exact sounds they made and the especial tendencies they had that made them unique. Now they were gone. He felt that.

He felt lonely despite not being alone. In fact, he was surrounded. He raised his head slowly to meet the gaze of a proud ewe. It was standing emphatically at the head of a small herd of older sheep that formed a semi-circle around the bleeding shepherd. This particular ewe was striking. It stood unflinching as a cool breeze ruffled its fleece. Two horns curled menacingly around the top of its head, a sign that it could look after itself. Its large, yellow eyes were fixed relentlessly on the shepherd, emitting an utter hatred. All the sheep wore this merciless expression of pitiless destruction worn thickly over a satisfied glee.

The shepherd sighed again, not out of physical pain this time, but inwardly, and closed his eyes. These sheep too were not unfamiliar to him. They had once, long ago, been his flock, his family, his pride and adoration. He allowed himself to think back to a bright spring day some years ago when the dew had clung fiercely to the grass and the air was fresh enough to linger in his present memory. He had heard a low baaing sound that could mean only one thing and his heart had quickened a little. Rushing determinedly through the wet grass he'd reached a female sheep that was keeled over on her side, bleating. Quietening her, he waited with a dizzy anticipation. And then it had come in a flurry of beauty and he was holding a wet, hairless, freshly-born creature that was looking blindly up at the bright spring sun. He was holding in his hands a being of immense potential and, even if the shepherd was the only one who saw it, glory. This was his sheep, not to own but to care for and to watch over.

Now those eyes that had once blinked innocently up at the morning sun were narrowed with that ceaseless gaze of hatred. It was the same sheep, well learned now in seeking out its own pastures without the help of that now barely-remembered staff and calling voice. The sheep the shepherd had loved and cared for had turned against him. The shepherd let his eyelids open, gave another sigh - his last - and fixed his gaze finally and resolutely on the sheep that had killed their shepherd.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Burning For What?


In January Chris Tomlin released his latest album, Burning Lights. It was astonishingly successful, reaching number one in the US albums chart ahead of such artists as Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and One Direction. I only caught track of it a couple of weeks ago and I've been reflecting on it over this week in particular. It's a bold, dynamic, smoothly mixed piece of contemporary Christian music. But the overall impression I was left with was this:

Is this really a worship album?

It's not that Lights isn't good musically. It's full of catchy, well-written songs that have been running through my head. Musically, it's a success. My issue is with the lyrics. Having listened to the album afresh my analysis isn't going to be as negative as it was originally. 'Lay Me Down', 'Jesus, Son of God', 'Countless Wonders' and 'Thank You God For Saving Me', for example, are good songs which are effective in inspiring worship. Yet the best songs on the album seem devoid of significant lyrics. I found myself humming the tunes but unable to really resonate with the words I was singing to myself. Most of the songs I wouldn't recommend for use in churches. I felt that, despite the potential in the music, bland lyrics let the album down.

Take, for instance, the climactic words of 'God's Great Dance Floor':
"I feel alive.
I come alive.
I am alive on God's great dance floor."
That confuses me. I don't know what it means. I can't sing along to it. I'm all in favour of vibrancy and celebration being part of our worship but the words just strike me as being devoid of meaning. More broadly, they struck me as being indicative of a 'partying with Jesus' mentality which advocates dancing and zealousness as a substitute for the image mainstream society might have of church where worship is dull and monotonous ('Dance Dance' is a textbook example of this). Taking music which is loud and high-tempo, telling people to dance and calling it worship is not OK in my book. I may dance. I may party. And I may do both of the above as worship - in other words, as something pure that I do as I was made to do it. But instituting them in a time of sung corporal worship is dilutes the significance of what worship is. Some may worship through dance but I (like most, I'd guess) feel uncomfortable with the idea. Which means that our worship songs need necessarily to focus on drawing God's people together through lyrics of substance.

Part of this raises the links between worship music and what I'll call 'Christian music', by which I mean professionally produced music by bands and artists which are Christian and which contain Christian themes and topics within their songs but which don't write songs designed for use in church worship. I'd say that Lights contains a mixture of worship songs and Christian music. In other words, some of the songs may not functionally meet the criteria for worship music but they still sound good. This in turn raises the question of why people like me feel motivated to listen to Tomlin's music. Tomlin is, after all, rightly renowned as a gifted songwriter that's penned a stream of rich, well-written worship songs. So people listen to his music wanting songs to worship to. What do we lose when our worship music gets mixed up with our Christian music?

I don't think that there's anything wrong with Christian music. I think that it's terrific that Christians, instead of either becoming straight-up worship leaders or mainstream groups, have decided to create music that honours God. I think that it's OK that they make money out of appealing to a Christian audience. I'm a great fan of Delirious?, who successfully bridged that gap in writing music that was both unashamedly Christian and musically good. Similarly, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Tomlin releasing an album that focuses on producing good music over and above coming up with new worship songs. And I'm sure that any worship leader who had the opportunity to record an album would want the standard of music to be high.

So good worship music is great and good Christian music is also great. But I think that they're great for different reasons and that we need to clarify the boundaries between the two. This will enable two things to happen. Firstly, it will enable worship leaders and Christian musicians to focus on doing what they're best at and what they're good at without attempting to copy one another's genres. Secondly, it will enable people who listen to the music to get what they're expecting.

I'm aware that this post hasn't been massively complementary of Tomlin's latest work. I'm profoundly not anti-Chris Tomlin. The only reason I'm singling him out is because he's such a prominent and gifted composer of worship songs who's been such a blessing to the church. But I do think that Burning Lights represents a confusion between music about God and music sung to God. I think that there's a need for worship songs of substance and truth that enable a real connection with God. I think that party music's great, but it's best kept on the dance-floor and out of church worship. Let's let all of our music be good, but let's keep the worship in our worship music.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Shaun of the Dead: He Is Coming Back


Zombies. And Jesus. Intriguing, heh?

Shaun of the Dead is, in many ways, a film about a pub. 'The Winchester' is the setting of a scene in which five characters sit alone around a table, waiting. In the middle of a zombie apocalypse the central character, Shaun, has led a hoard of zombies away from the pub in a diversion. Shaun's Mum (Barbara), his ex-girlfriend (Liz) and three other friends (Dianne, the pessimistic David and Shaun's best friend Ed) are part of an unlikely group of survivors brought together by circumstance and by Shaun. With Shaun gone all they can do is wait. Look up the scene if you can, but otherwise here it is in dialogue form.
DAVID: There's no lights. There's no power. Where are the owners? And there's that bloody great hole in the window.
ED: You did that, you twat.
DAVID: Well, someone had to do something! I don't know if you noticed back there but we were in a spot of bother. Somebody has to take control of the situation and if none of you are prepared to accept that responsibility then perhaps...I should.
BARBARA: Will Shaun be gone long?
LIZ: He'll be back soon.
DAVID: How can you know that?
DIANNE: I don't think he'd leave us, Davs.
DAVID: Wouldn't he? How can you put your faith in a man you spectacularly binned for being unreliable? A man whose idea of a romantic nightspot and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing? This is a pub! We are in a pub! What are we going to do?
ED: Get a round in?
LIZ: Let's just keep quiet and wait for Shaun. We can barricade the window when he gets back. 
DAVID: What then? How long? Days? Weeks? Months? What about food? What are we going to eat?
DIANNE: Toasties.
ED: There's a Breville out back...
DAVID: Oh, great then! Saved by nibbles! That must be why Shaun took us here before he buggered off.
LIZ: He's coming back.
DAVID: Why? Because he promised? And, even if he does, do you think that his master plan is going to extend to anything more than sitting and eating peanuts in the dark? What, is he just going to stroll in and suddenly everything's going to be OK?
LIZ: I don't know, David! I don't know any more than you do. What I do know is that we're here now and we have to make the best of it. Ed, give me a double vodka.
ED: Right you are.
DIANNE: I'll have a drink too, actually. Would you like a drink, Barbara?
BARBARA: Hello...
DAVID: Right, great. Fuck it. That's what we'll do. We'll all have a party. How about that? We'll all get completely smashed. Oh look, we've got our nibbles. We've got our Mini Cheddars. Our Twigglets. Oh look, Hog Lumps.
At this point Shaun's hand dramatically appears from off-screen and grabs the Hog Lumps that David has thrown across the bar. Shaun is back.

BARBARA: Pickle!
SHAUN: Hello, Mum. Alright? Everybody OK? Any sign of John and Bernie?
DIANNE: No, we haven't seen them.
SHAUN: Have you checked upstairs?
DIANNE: No, I think it's locked.
SHAUN: What's the front situation?
DIANNE: Dead, same as the power.
LIZ: Nice of you to join us.
SHAUN: Yeah, well...I promised, didn't I?
What do we have in this scene? Waiting. Hope. Doubt. Mocking. Despair. Determination. Conviction. Essentially, David's convinced that Shaun's not coming back and that, even if he does, he won't improve their situation. Liz and Dianne maintain that he will return, even if the circumstances don't look promising. And one of them's wrong.

We are all in the pub when it comes to Jesus. We know Him through His past and we know Him in the present but we also know that He's coming back. And so we wait. Sometimes the waiting seems like it'll go on forever. It's easy to get momentum from excitement but hope - the slow-burning hope that's real but which demands patience through the decades - is far more difficult to cling onto. Has Jesus really changed anything? Is He just another figure in world history who had His time but is now confined to the history books? In the words of the church's opponents in the first century, "Jesus promised to come again. Where is he? Our fathers have died, but the world continues the way it has been since it was made." (2 Peter 3:4).

These thoughts aren't new. The nagging feeling that David might be right, that Jesus isn't coming back after all, has been with Christians throughout the centuries. For me, there are constructive reasons for hope, however. These are the things worth hanging onto when faith seems stupid.

Firstly, we know that Jesus is coming back because we know that He's alive. I mentioned last time the importance of the resurrection for me and how it's a vital, non-negotiable supporting truth for my faith. For what it's worth, the same was true for the first Christians. Paul wrote that, "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is worth nothing, and your faith is worth nothing." (1 Corinthians 15:14). 1 Corinthians 15 is actually a good example of how that faith functions. Because Jesus has been risen from the dead (v20) it necessarily follows that He will return as judge and king (v23b-28). The resurrection is the great fact that underpins Christian hope: without it there is no hope but with it there is a sure and unshakeable future in store that we can depend on Jesus returning in person to fulfil.

Secondly, we know that Jesus is coming back because He said so. Shaun's word is what helps to maintain Liz's faith in him. If someone promises you something, whether you believe them or not will depend on your assessment of their character. Are they trustworthy? Have they stood by their word in the past? Jesus repeatedly taught that He would return. For instance, He told His followers, "I will not leave you all alone like orphans; I will come back to you" (John 14:18). He's given us a promise; the only question is, 'will we trust Him?'.

This was a big issue for the first Christians. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it's one of the major pastoral concerns of the New Testament (you see this, for example, in 2 Peter 3, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, Hebrews 10:35-39 and Revelation 3:11). Many believers had given up wealth, prestige, jobs and the respect of their family for Jesus. Now it seemed as if His promised return hadn't materialised. A particular concern was what would happen to the Christians who had already died (1 Corinthians 15:17-18, 1 Thessalonians 4:13). The Bible affirms that the passing of time doesn't stop Jesus's return but that it will happen in God's timing and no sooner.

Sometimes it will feel like David is right. Sometimes it will feel like, despite Shaun's heroism in leading away the zombies, he isn't coming back. Sometimes the taunts of the unconvinced will seem louder and more convincing. Sometimes we'll have nothing other than Liz's desperate, relentless retort, "He's coming back". And yet, in a moment, he's there. In the twinkling of an eye, Liz's faith is vindicated. Shaun looks after everyone's welfare and assumes control. Shaun isn't a perfect analogy for Jesus. As it turns out, his return ushers in exactly what David was expecting: eating peanuts in the dark. But he does give us an analogy of what it's like in the waiting.

Shaun didn't come back to life and his character isn't faultless. But we have a God who did and is. And He is coming back.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Why I Am That Awkward Christian

Last summer I was at the Olympics. "Oh", I hear you ask, "what events did you go to?". Well, none. In fact, I saw a great deal less of the Olympic competitions when I was in London than when I was back home watching it on TV. So then why did I give up a week of my summer to go to London 2012? Essentially, to talk to strangers about Jesus.

There's probably a cliché in your head about a socially awkward Christian attempting to share their faith. I almost certainly fulfilled it. I was in a team of other Christians, most of whom (whilst being utterly wonderful people) had very little idea how things like London transport worked. Collectively, we stuck out like a sore thumb. I had official merchandise on (oh yes). I had a matching lanyard and T-shirt and rucksack. Basically, I looked like I was going on a daytrip with the scouts. Christian scouts. If this wasn't exactly boosting my rep or giving me access to once-in-a-lifetime sporting moments, why would I go?

We all know what it's like to be sold something. I was in Morrison's the other day when it was announced that anyone who went to checkout one could receive a free metal potato peeler. I went and hovered nearby, mildly intrigued but not wanting to commit in case there was a catch. A salesman stood up and announced that you'd be given the peeler after listening to his 10-15 minute promotion about a new kind of knife. Some people drifted away. Some lingered. I think everyone was suspicious. This is the feeling you get when a stranger knocks on your door. It's the feeling you get when one of those charity fundraisers catches your eye in the street. Maybe it's the feeling you get when Jesus comes up in a conversation. When we're in these situations we often put up mental barriers because we can't help feeling like the other person wants something from us.

Is this me?

A few weeks ago my university had a Missions Week where the Christian Union put on a series of events designed to help people explore faith in Jesus. It got me thinking about whether talking about God is worth it. So these are two reasons why, in spite of inconvenience and in spite of social awkwardness, I'm convinced that it's a conversation that's utterly worth having.

It's Either True or It's Not

Are you religious? Right now, I honestly don't know. It's not that I'm unsure of whether I'm a Christian, whether I believe in God or whether I know Him in my life. It's that I'm not sure I want the tag. On consideration, I probably don't. For me, being 'religious' comes with the following baggage: dullness, legalism, bureaucracy, an inability to tolerate questions, small-mindedness...did I mention dullness? Sometimes you can add hatred and hostility to the list. I'm sure you can come up with a few of your own. Here's the thing: I don't associate any of them with God. God and religion are two different animals. You can pick your religion but you can't pick whether God's real or not.

Tolerance is king in our society right now. There's undoubtedly a very positive aspect to that: it's obviously good to have respect and to be civil towards people who are different to you. But there's also a very harmful, and completely illogical, consequence to tolerance: we've largely stopped caring about what's true. The attitude is: 'Oh, you're religious. That's cool for you, but it's just not for me'. But seeing God as an optional extra or thinking that religious faith is OK for one person but not for another seems crazy to me.

Either God's there or He's not.

More specifically, either the claims of Christianity are true or they're not. Deciding that you're not a religious kind of person doesn't change reality.

Let me put the following to you: either Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead or He wasn't. He is, at this moment, either alive in heaven reigning as God Himself or disintegrating into dust along with the rest of dead humanity.  If Jesus didn't rise from the dead then I want to walk away from Christianity right now. If He did then I want every other detail of my life to fall idle in comparison with my response to that truth. Which one it is matters supremely. We might use different methods to get to our answer (and all of us, deliberately or implicitly, come to some sort of verdict) but it's got to be worth investigating. Worth demanding answers of. Worth praying over. Worth talking about...

...whether you're religious or not.


Because He's Worth It


To borrow a phrase from L'Oréal...

Ultimately, that won't cut it, though. It's not enough to reflect internally on philosophical possibilities. That won't change us in any real sense or make us willing to tell anyone else about that change. First, let me tell you about the way in which I used to see sharing my faith.

I've seen it in the past as a goal in and of itself. I've thought that evangelism is something I have to do to be a good Christian. That it's somehow one of the things that I'm supposed to be doing. So I've attempted it as a stale exercise of cold-hearted obedience. I've identified friends as targets and tried to drag them to an event or impart some religious information to them as part of a stage-managed operation. I've attempted to spread Jesus by force and...it leaves me feeling unsatisfied and it doesn't work.

Obligation is a terrible motivator. You'll only ever really carry out an obligated duty because you have to. Often you won't care how good a job you did. That you've completed what you were expected to do is enough. Your heart isn't in it. This is how sharing my faith has often been for me. But it misses a key, if obvious, point: we're motivated to share what we care about. If you're truly passionate about something then you can't help but share it: it's infectious. I'll probably never know, but I suspect that this is what a girly coffee date feels like. Not being able to not share something because it's so exciting: 'You won't believe when you hear'. I think that recovering this sense of knowing that God's worthwhile is essential: it's the only proper reason why anyone would ever want to share Him.

The irony is that I'm convinced that God gives me the best possible life. Jesus once said, "I came to give life - life in all its fullness" (John 10:10). Jesus is saying that He isn't like the seedy knife salesman who tries to make you sign up for something you don't really need. He isn't out to exploit you. He offers the best quality of life there is. This is my experience. This is my life story. It's about an uncontainable, substantial, ever-present, unshakeable, smile-on-your-face-putting contentment. If that isn't worth sharing then I don't know what is.

There's a story in the Old Testament about a city that's surrounded by a foreign army. There's a siege and the people inside are starving to death. Four guys eventually decide that surrender is as good as starvation and go to hand themselves over. When they get to the enemy camp they find it deserted: the army's abandoned their position in a hurry. Four lean, hungry men come across hundreds of tents full of food, and they gorge themselves. Then they suddenly take stock of their situation and say,

"We're doing wrong. Today we have good news, but we are silent. If we wait until the sun comes up, we'll be discovered. Let's go right now and tell the people in the king's palace."
 2 Kings 7:9

This is why I deliberately try to share my faith. This is why (although I'm not as good as I should be at speaking out in the first place) I refuse to keep my mouth shut. This is why I want to ignore social expectations and conventions in order to speak. This is why I'm more than happy to be that awkward Christian. The point isn't whether I'm 'religious' or not. The point isn't whether I'm obligated to speak. The point isn't even that there are hungry people who need the food that I have. The point is that I'm so full - so completely and utterly satisfied. And that's totally worth sharing.

Guess what? I'd actually love to chat to you about it. Just send me a message.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Banquet / A Party Worth Going To


In my last post I explored the central place that community has in Jesus's imagery of eternity, with the picture of a banquet being a repeated theme. The main place this banquet imagery occurs is in Luke 14:15-24. We saw that God is pictured as a man who sends out invites to a dinner party. However, "all the guests made excuses" (v18). One guy's bought a new field, one guy's bought some new oxen and another guy's got married. They all claim that these new distractions prevent them from coming to the party, despite the RSVP list being sent out well in advance (v16). The excuses aren't outlandish - something new coming into each of the guests' lives merited an investment of time. But, considering the importance of the occasion and the advance notice they were given they sound pretty pathetic. It's like saying you can't come to a wedding because you've just bought a new Xbox. The point is this: the guests would've come if they'd thought that the party was worth the effort.

There are probably countless reasons for being wary about Jesus's presentation of eternity but I just want to explore two. This matters because how dedicated we are to God's kingdom in the present is determined, in part, by how convinced we are that the eternal life He offers us is actually worth accepting. So, what are these two stumbling blocks to seeing heaven as the perfect party?

Firstly, there's the concept of unlimited friendship. As I mentioned in the previous post, we all know what it's like to have friendships fade or die. It's because we only have a certain ammount of space for friendships, both in the ammount of time that we have to spend with people and in our emotional capacity to know people properly. Intimacy requires exclusion. People on facebook with 3,000 'friends' obviously don't have 3,000 friends. Nobody has the capacity for it. With the disclaimer that this is speculative (i.e. just my gut reaction), I think that we won't have this limitation in eternity. A parallel might be found in what Jesus has to say about marriage, a relationship which is obviously exclusive in this life but won't be in the future. Jesus says, "When people rise from the dead, they will not marry, nor will they be given to someone to marry. They will be like the angels of heaven" (Mark 12:25). In other words, emotionally content in God. Just as the angels don't need exclusive companions because of the nature of heaven, neither will we. I strongly suspect that the community of heaven will be such that we'll be capable of sustaining a limitless network of friends without ever feeling like we're apart from anyone.

Secondly, there's the people who aren't there. Every Christian knows people, some of them very dear, who don't know God. Unless you subscribe to a universalism that contradicts what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught throughout His life then heaven isn't the only future, eternal reality. Can it really be possible to enjoy paradise when people you love aren't there? A couple of points might be helpful here. Dispensing with the notion that hell is a torture chamber where God maliciously takes His revenge through suffering on non-Christians, an idea which is neither necessary nor Biblical, is a starting point.

Another parallel that might be helpful is Isaiah 65-66, which serves as the key supporting influence on the image of heaven in Revelation 21-22. Isaiah 65:17-19 gives several key images that Revelation repeats: a new heavens and a new earth, a renewed Jerusalem, God with His people, a promise that sadness and crying will end. Isaiah 65:17 says that God's people "will not remember the past or think about those things". And in 66:22-24, where the imagery of a new heavens and a new earth picks up again, there's a new picture of a pile of bodies. These are the corpses of the nations that stood in opposition to God and which God has judged. 66:24 says that "everyone will hate to see those bodies". There's an implication there that God's people can see those who've been judged if they want to...but that nobody will. That's a sobering message, but one which doesn't, I think, contradict the goodness of eternity for God's people. If we really believe that living in rebellion to God is akin to spiritual death then we don't want the contaminating influence of sin to enter God's kingdom, even if that means that people we love (and which God loves) are excluded. Salvation has to be more than an optional extra. There's doubtless more to be said, and more to be prayed over, here but I hope that this image from Isaiah provides a window through which to view the problem: the loss in separation from loved ones may be great but doesn't spoil a future in which all the pain of the past will be eclipsed by an unsurpassed present.

This may be tough stuff. We may not have all the answers. But our response is important. We've been issued with an invitation to an eternal banquet. We can choose to make excuses, which might take the form of intellectual objections to what heaven's like. Or we can send back an eager 'yes!' and, together with our questions and worries, wait for the news that dinner is served.

Let's be clear of one thing. The party is utterly worth going to.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Banquet / He Will Reunite Us


We all have friendships that have changed over time, people that we once used to be best of friends with but whom we haven't spoken to for years. It varies from person to person but I know that, for myself, the friends that I was incredibly close with in primary school are now nothing more than acquaintances. Even right now I have friends whom I like and respect immensely but who I just don't see as often as I would like.

This post has been prompted by a couple of friends coming to mind who I know from university but who have now graduated. These are people who I miss a lot, people whose conversation and presence are a gaping hole in my life. Thankfully, I'm not without friends and there are a whole spate of friendships which have started from scratch or which have gone from strength to strength in the last few months. I'm incredibly grateful for these relationships, together with the more long-term relationships which continue to remain strong. But these new relationships don't replace the old ones. The people who are no longer part of my day-to-day life are missed for who they are as individuals.

When I think of and miss people from my past I remind myself that we will meet again. I know that with certainty, not in a wishy-washy way or as a petty consolation. It stems from the absolute truth that we are eternal beings. That this life isn't all there is. We have always been created for never-ending existence, not just for the single, earthly lifetime we're currently experiencing. You might have heard that before. But just think about it: you're going to live forever. (Try to avoid singing Fame at this point). We all are. We're eternal beings. It's simply how we've been created.

This principle of eternity is right at the centre of Jesus's teaching and message. There are a variety of different images that Jesus used to represent what life in the 'kingdom of God' is going to be like. One of the most persistent ones is of a banquet. He unpacks it extensively in a parable in Luke 14:15-24 (although it also occurs, for example, in Matthew 8:11, Luke 22:29-30 and Revelation 19:9), where heaven is presented as an invitation to a huge dinner that various people turn down. This recurring imagery of eternity as a shared meal makes me both joyful and excited. It confirms to me that heaven will be about community.

What images first come to mind when you hear the word 'heaven'? Perhaps you think of a grand, majestic scene of unceasing worship like the throneroom vision in Revelation 4-5. God's sovereignty is an absolutely vital part of Biblical eternity, as God's rule becomes absolute and His kingdom comes. But I feel that we lose something crucial to the way in which Jesus presented heaven if that's the only aspect we recognise. Part of that is to do with our understanding of worship, which is surely unimaginably minute if we confine worship to collective singing in a church service. That's part of worship, but true worship - the kind of worship we should all be aspiring to - means honouring God with our whole lives. It means that everything we do or say is wrapped up within that worship (Colossians 3:17). Why shouldn't that include a good meal shared with friends?

Some might say that seeing heaven as a dinner party undercuts God's place at the centre of the image. But good human friendship isn't incompatible with a proper acknowledgement of who God is. In actual fact, being in a right relationship with both God and other humans is always how we were created to live (remember Mark 12:29-31?).

How will friendship work in the new creation? I'm on more speculative ground here, but I'm convinced that it will include an opportunity to catch up with old friends. To see family members that we've been separated from by death. To maintain friendships established in our earthly life. Yes, even to make and sustain new friendships throughout eternity. All of these things necessitate a space where you can have a conversation, like the kind that you get when you sit down and eat with someone. Eternity will create an unparalleled opportunity to really talk with and enjoy the company of people, without either the pressure of time constraints or the destructive influence of sin. I was going to explore some of the other potential consequences of having eternal friendships but, on second thoughts, that might be best left to a future post. For now, let's recognise the essential role that community has in God's future.

We all know what it's like to lose touch with friends. Hopefully, we also all know what it's like to share a good meal with good friends, where everyone has their guard down and simply enjoys one another's company. I'm convinced that heaven will be like a banquet and that Jesus was very particular in choosing this imagery. God's going to create a reality that involves worship but which also involves all the best things that are part of human friendship now, renewed so as to be made perfect. And, naturally, that involves talking and connecting and laughing and sharing and listening...and eating.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Ambition and Coach Carter

Ambition can be a crippling thing. Coach Carter (Thomas Carter, 2005) is a film about a group of young people who don't have any. Their lives resolve around basketball but they generally don't have any aspirations to greatness. Career, fame, glory - all these things mean nothing to them. They do care about other things, though: self-esteem, popularity, image, the ability to convince others that they're macho. The new, no-nonsense basketball coach, Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), instils discipline in the team, aspiring them to make themselves into better men. The way he does this is through requiring academic success alongside sporting talent. What kind of ambition does Coach Carter advocate? And is it really the kind we should aspire to?


By the end of the film most of the team have improved their schoolwork and several win sports scholarships to university. There's a sense of achievement in what Carter's managed to do. I don't doubt the message that a university education is better than a life in gangs and prison, the radical contrasts the film offers us. But there's an celebration of ambition behind that stark choice that effectively makes a god out of self-betterment. Towards the end of the film one of the students, Kenyon, tells his girlfriend that he's got into university. He's made plans for the two of them and their baby to make a new life for themselves there. She reveals that there is no baby, that she's had an abortion. Others may read this scene differently, but to me it seemed like the magnitude of this news was undercut by the fact that he'd secured a college place. As if the abortion didn't matter. Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of abortion I think we can all agree that it's a big deal for the people affected. The ideology behind the scene marginalises everything else except what could give you a better job. It says, "Improve yourself! Get to college! That's all the counts".

You can picture society like a ladder. Those people that we esteem the most are at the top - celebrities, the young, the talented. The people we ignore are at the bottom - the elderly and the disabled, for instance. Most people spend their lives trying to get one rung higher, even at the expense of others. Coach Carter effectively says that this is worthwhile, a good way to live your life. It's not the only way of seeing things.


Jesus - Upside-Down Ambition

Jesus shows us a completely different way of seeing life. Instead of a 'race to the top' Jesus sees life as a 'race to the bottom'. Jesus paints a future where "those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last" (Matthew 20:16, my translation). He says that real happiness doesn't belong to the rich, the famous and the self-secure but to the spiritually bankrupt, the humble, the justice-seekers and the peace-bringers, the persecuted, the pure and the grieving (Matthew 5:3-10). It's a privileging of the overlooked and the ignored that challenges the way in which we judge and categorise those around us.

Jesus reflected this in His own life. As God, Jesus rightfully had authority over everything. He was top dog (Philippians 2:6). Yet Jesus' whole life on earth was a giving-up of that place of honour (Philippians 2:6-11). He still carried God's authority and deserved to be worshipped 24/7. But people had to give it to Him, and not everyone did. It seemed like, with Jesus, you either loved Him or you hated Him. His ministry went between giddy exaltation and scornful rejection. Sometimes this came from the same people. The most dramatic example of this is in John 6, where a crowd go from wondering at Jesus (v12) after He miraculously feeds them to walking away from Him with complaints about His teaching (v41-42, 60). Yet Jesus never wavered from His mission.

At times, Jesus had to run away because the people wanted to turn Him into a human king (John 6:15). At times, He had to run away to stop them from killing Him (Luke 4:28-30). The temptation to take the human promotion of kingship must have been huge. But His identity in His Father kept Him fixed on the task at hand, which was much less prestigious and yet much more important. Alongside those who wanted to push Jesus into human leadership were those who challenged Him. The Pharisees challenged His authority constantly (e.g. Matthew 21:23). He was accused of siding with the devil (Matthew 12:24). He was betrayed. At His trial He faced a barrage of untrue accusations (Mark 14:56). Even on the cross He had scorn poured on His authority: "He saved other people, but He can't save Himself" (Mark 15:31). Jesus consistently turned down those who offered Him status and prestige when it wasn't in His Father's plan for Him. At the same time, He faced constant accusations and insults. I find it remarkable that, in the face of all that questioning of who He was and what He was doing, Jesus held true. He never sought a higher position but humbly persisted in what God had called Him to.

Think about that image of the ladder again. Jesus shows us that true satisfaction is found in climbing down it. Jesus Himself went right to the bottom rung. Through His death He placed Himself below all people. His example and the life He calls us to offer something so much better (and harder!) than either of the forms of ambition I described in the first paragraph. It's neither the ambition to seek a more wealthy, more successful, more prestigious life nor that of trying to prove yourself through how your friends see you. Jesus had a totally different notion of what's worthwhile (Matthew 20:22). Want to be great? Then serve. We need to master Jesus' lifestyle of one-down-manship. Not finding any need to have ambition because of who we are in Him.

The way God sees us makes any earthly ambition completely unnecessary.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

We All Fit Together


So this week I went to the dentist. I'll be honest - I had a couple of fillings put in. The anaesthetic left me without crucial abilities such as swallowing for a couple of hours and, I'm sure, made more than a couple of bystanders concerned for my general well-being. Since Monday I've been getting used to my new mouth. It feels bizarre. The new additions to my teeth feel like alien intruders. I keep mistaking them for bits of food and trying to dislodge them. Every time I run my tongue along the teeth in question they feel unnatural and unfamiliar, certainly not like the teeth that I'm used to. After a couple of days, though, I've learned to live with them.

The church is like my mouth. (Bear with me here). Some bits of it seem weird. Some bits of it seem alien. Some bits of it feel so different from ourselves that we wonder if they really belong there in the first place. The church is obviously varied - across countries, cultures, beliefs, styles of worship, traditions - and it can be tempting just to huddle around an exclusive group of people who are so like you that you feel completely comfortable. And to avoid the others.

That's obviously a limited approach. You only need to scratch the surface of Biblical Christianity to realise that the connection between believers is so much more than a common tick-box response on a survey. It's about family. God has made us His children (John 1:12, Romans 8:16, 1 John 3:1 etc.). There's an 'upwards' aspect to that whereby God is now our Father. But there's also a 'horizontal' aspect - fellow-Christians are our brothers and sisters. The word for brother (adelphos, sometimes literal but mostly metaphorical) occurs 343 times in the New Testament alone. God has joined us together to be His people, and no ammount of strangeness can contravene this basic fact.

Some parts of the church are newer than others, just like my bits of tooth. The older parts need to avoid being like my tongue which tried to dislodge the newer members because they were unfamiliar. They need to be open to fresh ideas and the power of cultural or religious change to make the whole stronger. The newer parts need to respect the power in the tradition and that, as James Bond said in Skyfall, "youth is no guarantee of innovation". Both old and new parts are needed for the mouth to be the full working whole it was intended to be. Neither is dispensable (1 Corinthians 12:18-20).

Bond and Q in Skyfall

Paul had a similar image of the church in Romans 11:16-24 as a Jewish tree with a non-Jewish tree grafted into it. He emphasised that the only reason any of the tree could be there at all is because of the root (v18). I don't know what the root is in my teeth analogy but the One holding it all together is obviously God. Without Him there would be no church. It's vital that we stay close to Him, and that means valuing our brothers and sisters.

We need to deal with our differences and conquer them with love. One of the marvels of the church is that it transcends social and cultural boundaries. I've met and called friends people that I never would have known otherwise, all because we're united by something more significant. Why don't you challenge yourself about your attitude to other Christians, and maybe go and chat to that unfamiliar person at church over coffee?
Christ himself is our peace. He made both Jewish people and those who are not Jews one people. They were separated as if there were a wall between them, but Christ broke down that wall of hate by giving his own body...His purpose was to make the two groups of people become one new people in him and in this way to make peace. It was also Christ's purpose to end the hatred between the two groups, to make them into one body, and to bring them back to God. Christ did all this with his death on the cross.
 Ephesians 2:14-16

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Landmark and a Survey

It's now been a little under five months since I launched this blog, and I'm really happy with how people have been interacting with it. This week we passed the landmark of the 1,000th view. I'm really trying not to focus on the view-count, and I'm sure that a great many of those are me refreshing pages in an attempt to see if pictures work, but it offers me a neat opportunity to thank you all for your time in reading posts and for your support and affirmation. Thank you!

I want to extend a quick survey about the blog to gather your opinions on how things are going, particularly the blog's appearance. There's also the (potentially one-off) chance to suggest a topic or Bible passage for me to blog on in the future. Go for it!

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/M8DM98K

Sunday, 20 January 2013

My God Laughs


Over the past few months I've found myself taking on a number of unfamiliar new roles: blogger, film critic and comedian. The latter can confuse people. How can a Christian do stand-up? Doesn't God disapprove of that sort of thing?

But one of the great joys for me about doing comedy is that it's both a profoundly Christian and a profoundly Biblical thing to do. If anything, it's us rather than the Bible who have the biggest difficulty with accepting that humour is wholesome. In their letter to the Phillipians, Paul and Timothy give the church this instruction: "Be full of joy in the Lord always. I will say again, be full of joy" (4:4). It's almost as if, even for its original audience, the command to be joyful can be easy to brush over and ignore. But it's deliberately restated. It's a message that we need to take on board. Following Jesus doesn't mean forsaking happiness for an existence of dour, lifeless self-sacrifice. Knowing God is actually the source of true joy and contentment. Let's be honest: some Christians haven't exactly been renowned for having a laugh. Some Christians have explicitly frowned upon any sort of humour whatsoever. But that sort of attitude tragically misrepresents the warmth and laughter of our God.

That's not to say that all humour is Godly. There are some things which just aren't funny, some times where it's genuinely inappropriate to laugh. I'm not advocating the taking-on of a guffawing persona with no sense of proportion - laughter no matter what. There are plenty of situations in life that require a response from us that's not laughter. And humour that exploits, humiliates or demeans others is, in my book, never healthy.

That said, I'm convinced that God Himself has a great sense of humour. Again, we're often the ones who reject this out of hand. For instance, in three stories told in response to those who criticised His radical acceptance of outsiders Jesus portrayed an exuberant, joy-filled, celebratory God. In each story, something of great value gets lost: a sheep, a coin, a son. After some sort of search the lost item/person is found. A huge party is thrown to celebrate. God? Partying? Well, yeah. Jeff Lucas writes about the partying God:
Risky though it might seem to some, God loves the imagery of a good party and consistently uses it in the inspired words of Scripture to point to his own nature and the reality that he calls his people to be a partying people...And God himself is not the wallflower, the stoic, unsmiling spectator or party pooper who sits every dance out because he is above that sort of thing. 
(Will Your Prodigal Come Home?, p152-153)
Jesus included parties in the stories to point to the truth that "In the same way, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God when one sinner changes his heart and life" (Luke 15:10). Lucas notes that, although it's often been taken to mean that it's the angels who are showing the joy, in actual fact they're just witnesses. The image in my head is of a God celebrating so loudly and emphatically that even the angels are a bit taken aback.

Broken clocks. They're so rude. They won't even give you the time of day.

I don't know whether you find that funny or not - it doesn't really matter. But we all know that feeling of finding something really funny, whether it's online, in a comedy act or just in everyday life. Quite simply, I think God's behind that. I'm encouraged to be among Christian comedians like Tim Vine who believe the same sort of thing. Laughter's from God. It's his invention. Why would we think that God doesn't laugh with us? I don't think that it's an exaggeration to say that anything funny that I come up with is actually second-hand material from God. They're His jokes (thankfully, I don't think He'll be suing me any time soon). He's the source of laughter and joy.

We have permission to laugh in God's presence. I can't overstate that. The Christian life is one of joy, the living out of the celebratory heart of God. I often think that your average guy on the street thinks that a sense of humour is extracted from Christian kids at birth ("We won't be needing this,  thank you, doctor"). But my God laughs. And every 'ha-ha' joke points to the complete and abundant joy that's only found in knowing Him for yourself.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Is God OK With Slavery?


Christians often find it awkward to talk about slavery. It's seen as one of the fundamental injustices of human history and yet it's felt that we can't really speak out on it because...well, doesn't the Bible condone slavery? We're troubled by Old Testament passages like Leviticus 25:35-54 that discuss owning slaves but don't say that it's wrong. We might right that off as an obscure Old Testament passage. But then we're concerned to find Paul give advice in the New Testament like: "Slaves, obey your masters here on earth with fear and respect and from a sincere heart, just as you obey Christ" (Ephesians 6:5).

So is God OK with slavery?

It's obvious from the passages I've referenced above (and others which I haven't) that slavery was commonplace when the Bible was written, both for those who worshipped God and those who didn't. The Bible doesn't contain an explicit statement that slavery is wrong. Why might that be?

When we think of slavery today our minds tend to jump to the image of America and the slave trade. We think of cotton plantations and ships crammed to capacity with human cargo. And we're absolutely justified in being repulsed at the degradation of human dignity and barbarity that happened in the slave trade. We misunderstand what the Biblical authors mean by slavery, though, if we read this image into the text.

God is not OK with this.

In God's law the slave is very much part of the family. You thought of them that way - my wife, my daughter, my son, my slave. They were included in your household and as such you were responsible for them. You could draw a parallel with the domestic workers, doing cleaning and tidying, that are commonplace in some parts of the world today. Slaves did more work and could sometimes be treated cruelly but generally it was in your interest to treat your slaves well. If you beat your slave then he'll necessarily be unable to do his job well.

And the Bible contains the precedent for a radically compassionate treatment of slaves. Nowhere else in the world but in God's people were slaves entitled to one day off a week in law (the Sabbath). There are laws requiring you to release your slave if you mistreat him in certain ways. It was enshrined in law that Israelite citizens could only be enslaved for a maximum of seven years, no matter how great their debt. There's even an allowance for a slave to remain with a family upon release if he's grown attached to them (Deuteronomy 15:16-18). When you reach the New Testament the requirements are even more radical - treat your slaves like you'd want your real Master to treat you (Ephesians 6:9).

We can have peace with slavery as it's required to be practised in the Bible. When the master is fair and honest then the slave was little more than a domestic employee tied into a short-term contract. But what about modern-day slavery? Can't that be understood as Biblically wrong?

1 Timothy 1:10

As I said, there's no all-out statement condemning slavery in the Bible. But there is a passage that condemns trading in slaves. In a list of people who "are against God and are sinful" (1 Timothy 1:9) Paul lists those "who sell slaves" (NCV). The NIV and the NLT also use the phrase 'slave traders' whereas the NASB goes for 'kidnappers', the ESV for 'enslavers' and the KJV for the wonderfully archaic 'menstealers'. Why is there such a divergence of translations? The Greek word used (andrapodistes) appears to be a technical term stemming from the practice of enslaving defeated soldiers in war. It refers to those who stole other people's slaves in order to sell them on for profit, a practice already condemned in the Old Testament. This is slightly more than kidnapping. It's trading in human life for the purposes of money. And that is sinful and wrong. We can overstate the meaning of this - it doesn't say that owning slaves is wrong. But it does give us an indication about how God might feel about slavery today.

I think that Biblical authors like Paul would be horrified by human trafficking today. Enslaving someone for the purposes of sex or smuggling someone across a border with the promise of work and then exploiting them is sick, even by ancient standards. It's far from the family-based model of slavery practiced in the Bible. I'm proud that Christians were at the forefront of opposing the slave trade. Christians today have no reason whatsoever not to follow in their footsteps in rooting out slavery in the modern age.