Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ninety Seven

I heard recently that around 3% of the population are by nature risk-takers.  (As a statistic, it may have been based on anecdotal evidence; but I would imagine that it is fairly accurate nonetheless.)

To follow Jesus – indeed, to follow the God of Abraham, of Moses, of Ruth, of David, of Elijah, of Daniel, of Esther, of Mary, of Jesus, of Paul – requires of us that we step out into the unknown.  And that means that for 97% of us, it requires doing something that doesn’t come naturally.

I think of my parents.  I know my parents, and they aren’t risk-takers.  I don’t think it is just a matter of that they have become more risk-averse with age, or since having kids – and now grandchildren.  I just think that they are part of the 97%, and not the 3%.  And yet, in their twenties, they moved to what was at the time reckoned to be the most dangerous city in the world: Manila.  My mother was thrown from a moving bus when she was pregnant with me.  (Some would say, that explains a lot.)

On any measure other than faith in the God of Abraham, they were foolish.  And even so, it was costly.

I know for certain that I am part of the 97%.  But I have sought to follow in their example.  In where we have gone, now I have a family of my own.  In what I write, also.  Stepping-out, not knowing where the path leads, not knowing what lies ahead...

If you are in the 3%, you need to be discipled in different ways; need to learn to be still and to listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit: faith is not recklessness, which endangers yourself and your companions for vain glory.  But in the much more likely case that you are part of the 97%, you are in good company: 97%, including almost every hero of faith down through the ages.  If you are part of the 97% you need to be discipled in this way: choose obedience – it will cost you everything, but it will be, in the truest sense, glorious.


Elijah, our youngest, turns 5 today.

My prayer for him is that he would discover that he is the hero in his own adventure, which is in turn part of the greater adventure of Abraham’s family;

and that he might grow to be more deeply and wholly Christ-like than me, in this life;

and that one Day after this we will stand side-by-side together, and see Jesus standing on the earth with our own eyes...

We went to the Southport Flower Show, where we saw (among other things) four brave knights – three men, and one woman – compete in a jousting tournament.

And, at Elijah’s request, Jo made a cake in the form of brave little Star Wars droid R2-D2.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Mis-Placed Hope Of Heaven

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another.  How my heart yearns within me!”
(Job 19:25-27)

I do not especially have the hope of heaven in my heart, if by the hope of heaven we mean hope that when I die I will go to heaven.  As I read the overwhelming testimony of the Old Testament concerning the nature of the grave, and the New Testament writings concerning the resurrection of the dead in Christ – see 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, as well as Revelation – my best guess as to what will happen when I die is that I will be dead.  Really dead.  That while I live – in this life – I may visit heaven in dreams and visions; but that only those who die as martyrs (which I might, in which circumstance I have the hope of heaven in my heart) will reign with Christ in heaven, as heaven is for now.  That when I die I will be dead, and will remain dead until the Day when Jesus returns – a visible, bodily return – to this earth in order to make it new, to give it its own imperishable body, and to bring a made-new heaven and a made-new earth together.  And on that Day, Jesus will also give me an imperishable body: resurrection life.

But I’m not sure where it says, as a blanket-statement, “If you believe that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour you will go to heaven when you die.”

Job’s is chronologically one of the oldest stories recorded in the Bible.  And ever so early on, his insight is one of the most profound statements in the whole of that great story of God and humanity.  His hope is my hope.  Not a primitive fore-runner to a hope of heaven, but a hope far greater and more glorious.

Let’s stop holding out a non-biblical hope of instant gratification, a hope of heaven, and instead hold out the hope of seeing our Redeemer – Jesus – with our own eyes on the earth.

If, on the other hand, by the hope of heaven we mean hope of God’s perfect life-affirming reign breaking-in, however imperfectly, to our present experience of the world, then I do have the hope of heaven in my heart...

Son Of God : Son Of Man

When it comes to discipleship, one of the problems facing evangelicals is the consequence of having over-stated the uniqueness of Jesus.  Indeed, from an evangelical position, such a claim probably sounds preposterous: at best, impossible to do; at worst, heretical.  But my contention is that we have confused the way in which Jesus is unique, and the ways in which he isn’t; and that as a result Jesus has become removed, is no longer a model for us.

I believe that Jesus is in a unique sense the Son of God, and the Son of Man.  I believe these things because I believe that the Holy Spirit guided the early Church to such conclusions (by Son of Man, I do not mean fully-human: that was something else the Holy Spirit guided the Church to conclude).  But these conclusions are post-biblical.  At the same time, the Bible itself affirms SON OF GOD and SON OF MAN as designations which are not unique to Jesus, and as callings we are invited to share.  Just as we need the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to us, so we also need the Holy Spirit to reveal ourselves to us.

Jesus himself quotes Psalm 82 to point out that the people of Israel are called gods and the sons of the Most High, and that therefore for him to refer to himself as the son of God is not blasphemous but merely owning what God has conferred (John 10).  In the same context, Jesus had declared, “I and the Father are one.”  Here the grammatical construction of the word “one” gives the meaning of one in purpose, not one in identity – as we might say, two parties being of one mind on a given matter – and therefore any of God’s Sons who are doing the will of their Father can say, with Jesus, “I and the Father are one.”  And this status has now been extended, conferred to all – Jew and Gentile alike – who are the true children of Abraham (John 8; Romans 4), who are led by the Spirit, in order that Jesus might be the firstborn of many brothers (Romans 8).

Son of God goes hand-in-hand with Son of Man.  And Son of Man does not refer to the incarnation – is not a claim that Jesus is fully-human, alongside being fully-divine.  (I am not denying the incarnation; merely pointing out that Son of Man does not refer to the incarnation.)  Son of Man refers to a particular scriptural construct: the one who remains faithful to God in the face of persecution – persecution which is itself God’s temporal judgement on the unfaithfulness of his people – and who, having first passed through suffering, is then glorified.  The Son of Man is, in a sense, one who is refined by fire.  By submitting to this pattern of God’s judgement and restoration or re-creation, the Son of Man is a prophetic figure, pointing to what their wider community (and indeed, ultimately, the wider creation) will face: in Jesus’ case, primarily the imminent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, and the ultimate (albeit symbolic and contested) triumph of the faithful remnant community, the Church, over Roman paganism within 300 years.  Moreover, the Son of Man is one who is given delegated power and authority to act on God’s behalf – as Jesus is, and extends to his disciples.  For while Jesus is the Son of Man par excellence, he is – again – our model: we are called to be those who remain faithful in the face of persecution; who suffer, at the hands of those who set their hearts against God; who, consequently, have a share in glory; who in this way live prophetically; and who are called to exercise divinely-delegated power and authority, to forgive, to heal, and in judgement – not that we pass judgement on others, but that their response to us, and therefore to the One who sent us, passes judgement on themselves.  The uses of Son of Man in the Old Testament are not types for Christ, but types for Christlikeness.

John brings Son of God and Son of Man together – Son of God implicitly, and Son of Man explicitly, about Jesus; and both, implicitly, about his followers – over and over in his Gospel.  Paul brings them together in relation to us – Sons of God, explicitly; and Sons of Man, implicitly – in Romans 8.

Jesus is uniquely God’s saving love for the world.  But Jesus is also our model.  As he is the Son of God, so we are called to be a Son of God (a Son: not a matter of our gender, but of our covenant relationship with the Son.  Note, I prefer the differentiation ‘the Son’/‘a Son’ to ‘Son’/‘son,’ because SON is a title and the uniqueness of Jesus is not located in the title itself but in his person, in the completeness with which he inhabits his identity, from eternity to eternity).  As he is the Son of Man, so we are called to be a Son of Man in our communities.  We are called to be conformed into his likeness (Romans 8 again).  While we over-state, or mis-state, his uniqueness, we resist the ongoing purpose of God.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Treasure In Heaven

Storing up treasure in heaven is not your retirement fund.  It is your working capital.

Inheritance Now

In Luke 15, Jesus tells two parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin – to reveal to us that God takes the initiative to go looking for us.  He then builds on those parables with a parable that reveals to us how God has done this.  A man – God – has two sons – the people of Israel, UPDATE: represented by the religious leaders; and Jesus.  UPDATE: These parables are spoken in the hearing of the 'older son,' who neither goes looking for the lost nor enters-into what the Father has for them themselves.  The younger son asks for his inheritance, goes on a long journey, squanders his father’s wealth on the undeserving, is abandoned by his friends, UPDATE: is humiliated by Gentiles, and returns to his father, who declares that this is his son who was dead and is now alive, and crowns him with honour.  This is the emptying and raising-up of Christ, celebrated in an early Christian hymn which found its way into Philippians 2:6-11.  The reason we don’t like to see this as being Jesus is because the younger son says, “I have sinned against you and against heaven...” and we know that Jesus was without sin.  But Jesus was not without sin: he returned to the Father, in his death, carrying the sins of the world.  He was not without sin, but without his own contribution to that sin.  If Jesus returned to the Father without sin, it is of no benefit to me...

Jesus, of course, is not only God’s saving love for us, but our example.  Jesus tells us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, which cannot be destroyed, corroded or stolen; and, moreover, to take with us into the world purses filled with that treasure, that will not be exhausted; adding that where our treasure is, our heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 12:33, 34).  How do we store up for ourselves treasure in heaven?  When we respond in obedience to what God asks of us, ‘God gets the glory, and we get the credit’ (thanks to Robert Ward, who has done so much to establish healing on the streets on the east coast of the UK, for that gem).  That is why it is written of Abraham that he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; James 2:23).  Peter tells us that, along with Christ, there is an inheritance kept for us in heaven, where it can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4).  But Jesus doesn’t only say, store it up; he also says: take it with you, to spend on others, in the service of the King (Luke 12).

Our inheritance cannot be depleted.  But it can be increased.  The way we increase our inheritance is to ask for it now, and to squander it on the excluded, the marginalised, the undeserving.  For that is what Jesus did with his inheritance, to our benefit.  Father, may we have our share of the inheritance now?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Gift Of Rioting And Looting

Like people, cities – nations, and even civilisations – rise and fall.  While I cannot condone the rioting/looting we have seen in English cities over the last week, there is a sense in which I believe we must embrace these events as gift.

Cities need to learn that they are special.  This very often happens at their outset, for most cities have their birth in some particular gift – for example, Sheffield began because its fast-flowing rivers were ideal for powering the small-scale cutlery mills at the start of the Industrial Revolution.  But the city must periodically be reminded that it is special, as some of its people love it enough to invest in regeneration programmes, or in hosting special events – such as European City of Culture, or the Olympics.  These things in turn enable the wider population of the city to rediscover that they love their city, and so for the city as a living thing to rediscover that it is special.

Cities also need to learn that they are good.  This happens as they experience success, as they grow and thrive.  And cities are good.  Theologically, I would want to point out that our story ‘ends’ with a city, with the New Jerusalem coming down to earth from heaven; with our world – including our cities – being made new, being all they could be without fear and hurt and self-centredness and prejudice and violence and tears.  Cities point to the future – to both the continuity and discontinuity with what is to come.  Cities grow.  But as they grow, they face the temptation to believe that they are immortal, above all others, that their name should go out to all the earth, a testament to their greatness and glory forever.  This is what happened at Babel.  This is why cities need to experience failure.

Cities need to experience failure, in order to learn that God is good.  In order to learn that God does not give up on the city.  In order to learn that God sits with the city in its ashes, and, in time, may take her hand and lift her up again.  But even if not – for our world is full of abandoned cities – the unrecoverable death of a given city is not the death without hope of resurrection of the city as a way of life.  I believe that cities, on this earth made new, are the eternal home of most of humanity; and that our made-new cities will reflect the New Jerusalem as places of beauty and places of healing for the nations.

Only as we accept failure, face up to it, overcome it, and redeem it will our cities more faithfully point to, anticipate, and usher-in God’s coming to dwell among us.

And so rather than seeking to rebuild what was before the riots – to go back to success – we need to learn the lesson of failure; and, having learnt the lesson, move forward to a new moment of discovering that we are special; and go on to new and deeper success...

In this sense, the riots have been a gift.  An opportunity, if we will learn.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fear And Love

It is not true that some people are evil, let alone pure evil.  That is to deny our complicity, our responsibility.

Neither is it true that everyone is evil, in the sense in which we understand and use the term today.  That is to demonise people, and to preach a gospel of sin management.

It is true that each and every one of us is capable of doing evil things, and this happens, very simply, when we give way to fear in our hearts.

A man in Norway goes on a calculated rampage because in his heart he has given way to fear, of the direction he saw his nation going in.

Men, women and children across England go looting because in their hearts they have given way to fear, of the consequences of having been disenfranchised (they have been disenfranchised, but there is a difference between being disenfranchised and giving way to fear), of the way their lives are impacted by others who lack moral authority: everyone is on the make; why should I lose out?  And those others respond with heavy-handed retaliation, because in their hearts they have given way to fear, that their privileged position might be taken from them.

Each and every one of us can give way to fear, and when we do our actions of self-preservation will have a destructive impact on those around us.  But giving way to fear is not inevitable.  John, the beloved disciple, writes that perfect love drives out fear.  We overcome fear as we experience and receive the love of God the Father.  And the way that we come to the Father is through Jesus Christ, his Son.  And the way that we see Jesus is through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has been poured out on all humanity from the Day of Pentecost onwards.  We experience love driving out fear by degrees, as we give way to fear and then repent – come back to Love – and are strengthened to overcome fear with love.

When we choose not to give way to fear, each and every one of us is capable of the perfection we are called to (God does not set us up for a fall), is capable of incredible creative action that brings life to others.  The choice is ours.

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.  If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars.  For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.  In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.  This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God."

(1 John 4:7-5:5)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Will The Real Me Please Stand Up And Then Lie Down

While it is necessary to surrender our false selves –

those selves constructed in the image of false gods, of consumerism, of individualism, of self-loathing –

to God, in order to embrace our true self –

made in God’s image: in the image of the life-giving Spirit, who shows us the serving Son, who shows us the loving Father –

these in themselves are unworthy sacrifices, and of little lasting worth.

We need to embrace our true self, in order to bring our lives as a worthy offering, as living sacrifices without blemish.  That is what God asks for.  That is what God can use, powerfully, to transform the world he created and entrusted us to exercise his loving, serving, life-giving rule over.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.  Reveal to us the Love that overwhelms our fear.  Stand by us as we take up our cross and die.  And hold out to us Life in all its fullness.  Amen.

(Further reflections on conversation with Angus Bell)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


What would happen in a society where generations of young people had not experienced and received love from their parents; and had not experienced success in any sphere through their school years?  What would happen if all they had known was failure?  If they were told that they were bad, so that they resigned themselves, or even aspired, to what would go with that?

What would happen in a society where generations saw success as an entitlement; perhaps as a pay-off for a lack of experienced love; or perhaps as something cheap, never having experienced failure?

What would happen in a society where such people lived side-by-side?

There would be understandable, though not justifiable, rioting.

And there would be others, who were learning the lessons of having experienced and received love, and having experienced success and failure – who were not fully-formed, but who were on an adventure of formation – who love themselves securely enough to love their neighbour.  Others, who got on their social networks, and flash-mobbed to clean the streets, to serve the fearful, to pray for our cities...

That is what would happen.

Five Forms Of Poverty : Update

This post, ‘Five Forms of Poverty,’ has just become the most-read of all the posts I have written (over 4,500 views and rising).  Since I wrote it, in October 2009, I have moved to a different local context, but the issues addressed there are still those facing our society.

London Burning

Along with many others, I am watching news reports of events in London, and now some of our other cities, over the last few days.  Images of young people rioting and looting...and of young people getting out on those streets and clearing up, starting to reclaim the streets for their community...

When we write-off those who are not us – write-off the looters, the bankers, the politicians, the police, the journalists, the fatherless young, the absent fathers, the have-nots, the have-and-won't-shares, the blacks, the hoodies – write everyone off, we both create the environment in which evil can flourish, and then further perpetuate the problem.

When we choose to serve others before ourselves, we create an environment in which good can flourish, in which people can flourish.  Not an uncontested environment, but one we must work to create in the face of the alternative.  An environment of hope.

The events of the past three days are not good.  But God is at work in all things to bring about good.  May these days be an opportunity we embrace, to live differently, that our communities might be transformed.

Authentic Adventure

Some bullet-notes on Simon Guillebaud’s Bible teaching from New Wine North & East 2011:

On the gospel call to Authenticity:

Being more than conquerors (Romans 8) involves accepting (acknowledgement, not resignation) the consequences of war; facing up to the consequences of war; overcoming the consequences of war; and redeeming the consequences of war.

On the gospel call to Adventure:

To respond to God’s call to COME follow him, we must Claim God’s promises; Obey God’s commands; Maintain faith in God’s leading; and Embrace risks for God’s glory.


We are made in the image of God.  Our identity derives from God’s identity.  I would propose that, as well as a general sharing in God’s identity common to humanity, each one of us is given a particular aspect of God’s identity to display.  In this way, together we display the multi-faceted likeness of God in a way we could not on our own.  This particular aspect might be revealed to us in a variety of ways, but one of these is through our given name.

We receive our identity from God, and we grow into it as we respond in obedience to God’s call on our lives; returning to God to be re-commissioned when we hide, not only from God and from our neighbour – before whom we are called to reflect God’s glory – but also from ourselves, our true identity.

Here is an example, from one of my favourite characters in the New Testament, Mark.  We only get glimpses of Mark, but I am drawing on those glimpses and on tradition from the early church to flesh-out his story.

We first meet Mark as the un-named young man who flees from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51, 52).  As an interesting aside, he is wearing nothing but a linen garment, and when he is seized he flees naked, leaving the garment behind...prefiguring Jesus’ dead body being wrapped in linen and held in a tomb (Mark 15:46), the linen being left behind when he, resurrected, departs (as witnessed by Mark’s mentor, Peter: Luke 24:12; John 20:3-9).

However, Mark’s presence at Gethsemane must have a back-story.  He is the relative of Barnabas, the ‘Son of Encouragement,’ and we can surmise from Barnabas’ later dealings with Mark that this young man has known the love and encouragement that affirms to him that he is special.  We can also surmise that for Mark to have been in the Garden, he was also present at the Last Supper.  While only Jesus and the Twelve are depicted in traditional paintings, this would have been a meal for Jesus’ wider community, and if Mark is counted within this number we can consider this to be an experience of success.  But this is followed by the Garden, an experience of failure.  Mark’s name means ‘Warrior’ – an aspect of God’s identity – but he fails to be brave in the face of ambush.

Mark surely feels the weight of his failure – not alone among the disciples – and needs to be restored.  His specialness is affirmed again when he is chosen to accompany Barnabas and Saul.  On their first missionary trip, Mark gets to share in initial success, before again reaching a point where, in the face of hardship, he deserts them for the security of home.

There is a point where Barnabas wants to give Mark another chance, and Paul won’t have it – perhaps because he is yet to see evidence that Mark has learnt the lessons he needs to learn from success and from failure.

However, at some point Mark does learn, because the time comes when Paul writes of Mark that he is standing with him in Paul’s imprisonment (Colossians 4:10), is helpful to Paul in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11), and is counted as a fellow-worker alongside Paul (Philemon 1:24).  Peter also acknowledges Mark in his writing (1 Peter 5:13).  Having embraced failure, Mark discovers true success.

The last time we see Mark is before the throne of God in heaven, in the revelation given to John.  According to church tradition, the four living creatures represent the four Gospel-writers, and Mark is the lion (Revelation 4:6b-8).  Mark, called to share in an aspect of God’s identity: the warrior, the Lion of Judah.  Mark, who starts out as a scaredy-cat, hiding from God and neighbour and himself, and who learns that he is special and that he is good and that God is good.  Mark, who goes on an adventure of highs and lows, victories and defeats, dying to mere self-preserving existence and growing-into the life in all its fullness God had prepared for him.

And what of us?

Not So Good News

All the way through the Bible, God comes to unlikely heroes and says, “Walk with me: let’s go on an adventure!”  God does not say, “You are bad, and you need me to address that.”  (Though he does sometimes say, “What you are doing is bad, and you need to change the direction you are going in.”)  As the adventure unfolds, the hero discovers more about themselves, and more about God, and learns to lay down their life for others.

But we have a tendency to say to people, “You are bad, and you need Jesus to address that.”

Go figure.

When we present people with a message that differs from the invitation and challenge God holds out, we should not be surprised (indeed, we should be thankful) that they don’t want to know.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Rise And Fall Of : Part 3

This post follows on from ‘The Rise And Fall Of : Part 2

The third lesson – that God is good – is where we need to go next.  The person who knows they are special, and good, will not grow to maturity without learning this lesson.  Job: so special, God boasts about him; so successful; loses everything, not as the consequence of sin but in order to gain an insight into Jesus millennia before the incarnation.  Joseph: from long-sleeved coat and dreams, to oversight of his brothers, to pit and slavery and prison.  Moses: from saving from infanticide, to Prince of Egypt, to such brokenness he speaks with a stammer.  David: from prophetic anointing, to lauded general, to outlaw in a cave.  Jesus: from nativity, to carpenter, to the wilderness; from ministered to by angels, to drawing crowds, to desertion; from anointing at Bethany, to triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to crucifixion.  Paul: from privileged background, to rising star of his generation, to fourteen years in the desert.  This is where we discover that God is good; that though we are good, we don’t need to be good, because God has given himself unreservedly to us.  Here – in our failure – is where we discover that we don’t need to hide from God.  Here is where we discover that God shares our pain; where we discover joy, which (as opposed to happiness) is wellbeing that transcends pain.

We need to experience failure, but not indefinite failure, for that crushes the spirit.  When the experience of failure has done its work – this time around – God brings us back to an experience that affirms to us that we are special, and gives us experiences of success – exalted and brought low, emptied and filled, as God does his work of perfection in us.  This is how we move from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity.

And so I look back on a season of my life where I was affirmed as special (the privilege of six years at university); which gave way to a season where I experienced success (the platform of six years on the staff at St Thomas’); which in turn gave way to a season where all that success was taken away from me in order that I might experience failure (the obscurity of two years going through selection for ordination, two years at theological college, two years – so far – of curacy).  Of course, there have been many smaller experiences of love, of success, and of failure within each of these broader seasons.  Each stage was a means of God saving me: from believing that I am not special; from believing that I can amount to nothing; from believing that I can achieve in my own strength or can achieve anything worthwhile without cost.  I find myself able to give thanks for the gift of all three seasons, through which I have learnt to rely more fully on God.  And – recognising that I am still (just!) in the first half of my life (-expectancy), still aiming at success and experiencing failure, yet to experience the true success that lies beyond embracing failure – I find myself looking forward to the next cycle, and future cycles, through which I will learn to rely on God more and more, and experience greater intimacy with him.

The Rise And Fall Of : Part 2

This post follows on from ‘The Rise And Fall Of : Part 1

I think the second lesson – that we are good – is far harder for Christians to learn, because we are conditioned to believe that we are sinners and that there is no good in us.  But the connection of the two parts of that belief-statement needs examining.  It is true that we are sinners, but does that mean we are not good?  I am not sure what Angus would say about our being good, from the point-of-view of mental health and dis-ease, but he has got me reflecting on it.  God’s statement of his creation was that it was good.  In Christ, I am a new creation.  Jesus moves from identifying himself as the light of the world, to identifying the community of his family as being the light of the world.  We are stars that shine in the universe, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  My identity is not that I was separated from God, but that I have been made one with Christ.  God has prepared good works for me to discover and do, since before the world was made.  Not only must I put to death the sinful nature, but this is now possible: God does not set us up for a fall.

But there is also a sense in which I have always been good, without denying for one moment my need for someone else who can save me from my insistence on hiding from God and neighbour as an act of self-preservation.  Something cataclysmic happened in Eden.  As a consequence, God says that the serpent is cursed, and so is the ground...but not the humans.  As a consequence, humans will experience success – child-bearing, met desire, bringing forth crops – and failure – pain in child-bearing, oppressing our wives, toil – and each will be used to move us from infancy to maturity.  God does not say the human has gone from good to bad: rather, the Trinity in conversation says that the human has become like them in knowing good and evil – but lacking the maturity to handle such knowledge.  And so the human is barred from the Tree of Life, not as a permanent situation, but until such time as God himself becomes for us the Tree of Life; not as judgement, but as grace.  There is a sense in which I am good not only because I am a new creation, but because I am God’s creation to begin with.  Will I choose to listen to the voice of God, who calls his creation good; or to the voice of the serpent, who accuses God of with-holding his likeness from us, of hiding from us for his own self-protection – who accuses God of being a sinner?  God delights in us, and he cannot delight in evil.

Why do we need to learn that we are good?  Because if we believe that we are fundamentally bad, we will not believe that we are deserving of the gifts God wants to give us.  We will believe God to have made a mistake, and will hide from him.  And also because we will not be willing or able to offer ourselves as an acceptable sacrifice, only as a blighted offering.  Until we learn that we are good, through experiencing success in some area, we will not be able to rely on God and partner with him.  But as I said, Christians struggle to accept that they are good.

The Rise And Fall Of : Part 1

We were away last week at New Wine North & East, with some 7,000 others.  It was a great week, for me the best New Wine summer conference I can remember.  Highlights included Simon Guillebaud’s Morning Bible Teaching, Angus Bell’s two seminars, camping with friends we’ve known for many years but rarely get to see, and seeing Jo come alive as one third of the team of pastors looking after the 80-strong team responsible for some 500 5-7 year-olds.

Angus Bell is a Senior Clinical Director of Psychiatry, who expounds Scripture using psychological insights gained from his clinical experience, and who I first met through mutual friends on a ski holiday in 1997.  His seminars on intimacy with God – experiencing success, the rise of the self; the freedom of failure, the death of the self – were profoundly helpful.  He began by describing the difference between those who live from their periphery, who classify, measure, judge, label (e.g. enmity between supporters of rival football teams); and those who live from their centre, who delight in what we have in common, are motivated by, but express differently (e.g. recognising a shared love of football).  God is always after our heart, our centre not our periphery.

Angus proposed that in order for us to be able to rely on God, in order to experience reliable intimacy with him, we must learn three lessons.  Firstly, we must both experience and – crucially – receive love, in order to learn that we are special.  Secondly, we need to experience success, in order to learn that we are good.  Thirdly, and most importantly, though it must follow on from the other two, we need to experience failure, in order to learn that God is good.  Through our lives we will experience cycles of these three experiences, through which we grow to maturity.

What follows, in three parts, are largely my own reflections prompted by Angus’ seminars: please don’t judge him by my inarticulate account of my inept thoughts.

I think the first lesson – that we are special – is one which Christians easily consent to at the head level, but struggle to learn at the heart level, because of disconnect between experiencing and receiving love.  That is while some of us did not experience love from our parents, more of us experienced love which we were unable to receive, not least because the expression of love held out was the expression of love our parents needed to receive but not the expression of love we register as love.  (Here I’m thinking along 5 Love Languages lines: quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, physical touch.)  We need to experience and receive God’s love, to know that we are special.  We can ask him for such experiences – for God is a Father who delights to give to his children what they ask for, however trivial the request may seem to others.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Only One Story

In all the world there is only one story; and in its countless variations it unfolds like this:

We first meet the hero, or heroine, as a child or perhaps a baby, where we discover that they are special; that something catastrophic threatens their life; and that as a result of this they are raised in hiding, protected, sheltered, possibly kept unaware of their true identity for their own safety...

We meet them again years later.  There is a growing threat to the peace of the kingdom in which they live; but they are encouraged by their community to see such threat as aberrations, at any rate removed from their day-to-day existence; and to get on with that existence...

Someone with wisdom – though generally perceived to be a fool – comes to them, and extends to them the invitation-challenge of making a stand against the expanding rule of chaos.  It is not enough to not contribute to evil: the evil that touches our lives is not a series of inexplicable aberrations but a well-orchestrated rebellion against a good world, and must be resisted and overcome by those who would seek to live in a good world.  But, discouraged by their perceived lack of specialness, the hero initially declines to accept...until something happens that really leaves them with no choice...

Setting off on their unlikely adventure, the hero soon meets a companion – because we cannot make this journey on our own.  At first, the companion – who is, in turn, the hero of their own story – and the hero most likely perceive one another as rivals.  But then one or the other falls into mortal danger, and the other realises that it is their moral duty to rescue their companion, resulting in a bond of friendship stronger than the fear of death.  Often, this friendship-story is also a love-story, a boy and a girl, who come to see in each other a compliment, a provision of gifts they themselves lack.  Their romance is a sacrificial love-story, not a tale of sexual-gratification...

Along the way, the hero is stretched beyond what he or she could ever imagine him- or herself capable of.  There are times of success; and times of failure, always followed by re-commissioning encounters: and in this way the hero navigates from a juvenile to a mature character, their true identity revealed to them by the process of experiencing both success and failure, but defined by neither.  There are moments filled with unexpected joy, in the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable peril.  There is loss – for there is no worthy adventure without it – and the discovery of gain which does not reverse the loss, but redeems it.  There is struggle, and there is victory.  And then, there is the ongoing work of remaking the world good; and the struggle of returning to live among those who have not shared in the adventure.

There are other stories, of course, but they are the kind of stories that once read are immediately forgotten; the kind of stories that once watched leave you walking out into the sun thinking, “I’ll never get those two hours of my life back...”

Whenever I watch a Disney-Pixar or a DreamWorks film with my children, there are certain points where I experience a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, not because my emotions have been manipulated but because the story is telling me, “Wake up!  You know this story to be true.  Take up your part.”  And as I walk out of the auditorium as the credits roll, tears come to my eyes again, because I know that every day of their lives, at school and beyond school in the adult world of work, my children will be told unrelentingly, “Put your head down and settle for as best an existence as you can make for yourself.”