Friday, November 25, 2011

Our Dreams Interpret Us


Credit: Free images from acobox.com

I don't know how popular books are that teach dream interpretation. There's certainly plenty of advice on the Web and many people are curious as to the meaning of their dreams. It's said that old men will dream dreams and young men see visions but I suspect this means old men will be naturally wise (just as dreaming is naturally induced) rather than having flashes of inspiration. When Pharaoh dreamed of cows and ears of corn they were believed to be inspired of God and neither Pharaoh nor his wise men could fathom them out. Joseph confessed that he had no such skill but it was God who gave him the explanation. He wouldn't have been able to reproduce this so called gift under controlled scientific conditions because it wasn't under his control.

The Bible knows nothing of a gift of interpreting dreams. Repeatedly it is a young man who is employed to do the interpreting suggesting it is more akin to a vision than an interpretation. Many of us have experienced crying with laughter over a joke we heard while in a dream either unable to recall what was so funny or coming to the realisation that the laughter was purely spontaneous, there being no joke as such. More often than not dreams occur just as we go to sleep or just as we wake up and so are, themselves, a semi-conscious interpretation of reality. To interpret them would be to see how we view reality when our imagination is allowed to run riot without the constraints of rationality. To make sense of a dream would be like seeking counsel from a person with delusions.

I remember sleeping at my grandma's house with my cousins. I was having a nightmare involving Herman Munster and I dreamed he was following me up the stairs. As I looked across the room there he was coming through the door. Being half asleep and the light being poor it was impossible to reconcile imagination with rationality. It was no coincidence that my cousin happened to walk through the door at the conclusion of my nightmare. My dream was an interpretation of that event. Being surprised and slightly afraid my mind instinctively imagined the worst and most vivid scenario. It seems the key to interpreting ours dreams lies in the rational and reasonable. Our version of reality is, after all, only an interpretation of what our senses communicate to us. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness cut adrift from the constraints of reason like a boat in mid ocean with no means of navigation. When we reach land we may be able to reconstruct the journey we could not have anticipated.

As I get older I don't dream more. I put less store in my dreams and nightmares are rare but I think I understand them more, probably because the dividing line between dreams and reality become more blurry. In looking back we can make sense of our journey through life, which has brought us to this point probably more by luck than judgement. The dream, where my limbs become like lead and the more I struggle to move forward the less progress I make, is little more than a metaphor for many of the challenges I face. The dream that I would dearly love to continue, but everything suddenly changes with no way of getting back, is very close to the experiences of many of us. I find myself waking from a nightmare only to find that Herman has followed me into reality. What do our dreams mean? They mean nothing, they are the life we live in an altered universe. Far from interpreting our dreams you could say that our dreams interpret us.

As an aside:

When I put 'interpreting dreams' into Google I got predictable results but there was also a link 'interpreting dreams Christian' which I clicked out of curiosity. This was like stepping into an alternative universe. The stuff of nightmares.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Is God Nice?


Credit: Free photos from acobox.com

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about why God doesn't answer prayer and, if he does, what sort of prayer does he answer. Is your prayer answered because you prayed it or because you just happened to be on God's wavelength? John the Evangelist said that God answers your prayers if you pray them according to God's will. Well what use is that? If he decided he wanted to do it why did he require your prayers?

I've watched a couple of Derren Brown programmes that apparently blow the lid off faith healers, spiritualists, mediums and snake oil salesmen in general. He is pretty convincing though you have to take into account that his skill is in deception so he could be deceiving us. But that's why he's so on the money because it takes a charlatan to catch a charlatan. The problem with faith healing is that it requires an unquestioning belief that you will receive what you are asking for. If you're not healed or you've not heard from your deceased love one or the finances you were expecting don't materialise, you have to find an explanation that maintains the belief and excuses the disappointment. If you accept that you were simply misguided you are forced either to accept that the cavalry isn't coming or that they never existed.

Derren claims he has no intention of discrediting faith itself but wants to expose those who make claims that are not credit worthy and, in many cases, who prey on the gullible. He says he's read the New Testament but dismisses it out of hand. While his cynicism is justified by his experience of those who would somehow prove the existence of the supernatural he cannot fully rely on his rational and logical reasoning to explain the mysteries of the universe. Unfortunately he doubts the existence of the cavalry.

Faith raises many problems that would be rationalised by the atheist or agnostic and therefore explained away. The faithful may defend their position by appealing to logic, proofs from history or empirical evidence but these are meat and drink to the seasoned sceptic and only confirm his position. That spiritual truths can only be received by faith would be a legitimate defence if it were not the fallback position and the refuge of the desperate. When faced with the question of unanswered prayer many of us find ourselves taking contrary positions simultaneously, drawing different conclusions depending on our state of mind. But I wonder if we are not just avoiding the hard questions - not that they are technically difficult but that they challenge the very core of what we believe.

You often hear people say that they can't believe in a God who would allow all the suffering in the world. But their belief in God makes no difference to his existence just as believing your prayer will be answered doesn't make it happen. When you begin with a false premise you invariably end up with a deficient conclusion and that, I believe, lies at the root of our dilemma. Many of God's characteristics are repeated over and over in the Bible without contradiction. God is holy, unique, supreme and all-powerful. He is the only true God, the Alpha and Omega. That God is love is echoed through both the New and Old Testaments despite the many references to his jealousy and anger. But one common misconception is that God is nice.

No one actually says God is nice but its clear that this characterisation often shapes our view of God as we read about him. It means that if God loves me he will be nice to me. It means he will not hurt my feelings or allow me to suffer. It also means that he will always be there to kiss me better and hold my hand when I am upset. When God appears to be absent or allows me to go through situations I wouldn't put my enemies through I have a problem that is almost impossible to solve. A simple but outrageous explanation is that God is actually quite selfish - he has his own agenda and if that means that I must suffer then so be it. Job understood this; his one problem was that God had been unfair in his case. I find it extremely difficult to reconcile the picture of Jesus being devoted to me when I can put myself in Job's shoes and I see myself looking at Jesus across the room with a devil in the foreground.

This is strangely comforting because it makes so much more sense and rings true in the light of my experience. Rather than clinging to the belief that God is holding my hand while every sense in my body tells me differently, I can see him at a distance yet fully aware, and in control, of the situation. I can picture God doing what he has to do in order to ensure the final outcome rather than being fixated on my petty inconveniences. Paul says that our momentary troubles will pale into insignificance when compared to the wonders that await us and Paul's troubles were anything but petty.

I like to think of Jesus as the anti-hero. He's the guy that walks into town and everyone eyes with suspicion. He proceeds to rub everyone up the wrong way, disregards the sheriff, and slights the mayor and stands and watches while the Hole in the Wall Gang robs the bank.

I find it easy to reconcile this scenario with that of God knowing every hair of my head and every sparrow that falls. Would I rather have a god who appears to care or one who really does care even when it appears he doesn't. Would I have a nice God who has sand thrown in his face by atheistic bullies or one who scoffs at their antics? It's commonly supposed that Christians are nice people. From this, two conclusions are drawn: that to be a Christian is to be nice or that to be nice is to be Christian. If Jesus Christ is not nice then both are inherently false and as the beaver might have said, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, "of course he's not [nice] - but he's good."

Sunday, October 09, 2011

I Know Him Very Well

This is a song I wrote some years ago and is on my album Beauty of Grace. I'd heard about Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of Christ' and how graphic it was. Some Christians strongly recommended seeing it as it brought the reality of the crucifixion to life. However, the more realistic something is the more you think you've experienced it first hand. But the Christian faith is about commitment not emotional attachment; more about faith than experience.

The Passion of Christ is a dramatisation of an event, produced to create an emotional response. In that, there is nothing wrong but you cannot say you know Jesus if you've never met him in person.

I've created a video on YouTube to illustrate the song.

I know it very well: the carpets, curtains, paper on the wall, the living room and hall. But I have never lived there, never been at all. I've seen it on TV and it seemed like home to me.


photo © francesco for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike


I know her very well: her children's names, the things that make her laugh; the shadows of the past. But I have never met her now that you ask.

photo © Michael Jastremski for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

I read it on the train, I recognised the name.

photo © Filippo Lodi for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

I've seen so many places in my living room.

photo © Michael Jastremski for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

Know what a broken heart is from my Mills & Boon.

photo © Sarah Klockars-Clauser for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

I know him very well: his flowing hair, his eyes of powder blue, the people that he knew. You'll know his name is Jesus if you've seen the movie too.

photo © reynaldo f. tamayo for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

A shame he had to die. It really made me cry.

photo © MIROSLAV VAJDIĆ for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

Credits for images used in my music video I Know Him Very Well

© Chris Price 2004.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

It's Not Common Sense

What you Herd

Credit: Free photos from acobox.com

Do you know why sweaty feet smell like cheese? It's the same bacteria producing the smell. Very often two things are quite different yet there is some commonality that links one with the other. We wonder how two things can be so different yet so similar at the same time but its not surprising when you consider that most of what we eat is made up of the same two elements, carbon and hydrogen. And if you appreciate that food is body fuel you won't be terribly surprised that petrol and diesel are also combinations of the same elements. We put carbohydrates in our bodies and hydrocarbons in our cars.

With this in mind you can understand that though people are quite different, one from another - in a given situation the majority of people may act in a very similar way. It has nothing to do with our similarities or differences but what we have in common; its what makes families sticky even when siblings are quite different to each other. Language is the glue (or commonality) that allows people to interact with each other without having to guess what the other person is trying to communicate. Your insurance premium is a case of commonality. If your premium is very similar to your neighbours it has little to do with you living next door - it's because they see you as a similar risk. Your profile may be completely different but to them you smell the same. It sometimes feels unfair but insurers are in the business of risk - you are not a person in their eyes but a potential risk.

This may sound like a very simple principle yet we often act as though it were not the case. When you say, "It wouldn't happen to me" you fail to recognise that its not your uniqueness that determines your fate but what you have in common with others. If you cross a busy road without looking for traffic you are as likely to get hit as the next person, not because of similar looks or personality but because of your common stupidity in the same situation. Its paradoxical that while young people rebel by being independent and different from their parents, they hang out with and want to be like their peers. One teenager may be quite different from another yet an older person sees only the commonality, which is mistaken for similarity. This is essentially the same prejudice as saying people of another race all look the same. Demographics may tell us that a particular ethnic group is most likely to commit a crime but its commonality that is the factor not ethnicity per se*.

A better understanding of this principle would adversely affect the self-help industry. If I may grind my axe a little, it would also reduce the sales of Christian 'miracle' books. The sales pitch goes something like this:

"My life was in a mess until I discovered this new approach. I put it into practice and it turned my life around. Forget everything you have learned and follow my plan. Read the testimonies of those who have followed this plan and seen dramatic effects. If it can work for me it can work for anybody."

They give you reams of stuff that seems to make sense and could potentially change your life for the better but leave the key principle for when you part company with your hard earned cash. It may well have changed their life and the lives of those who have given their testimony - the problem is the logic. They have followed the plan and it worked for them. The plan therefore has only one conclusion: success. The most successful people tend to have lives pitted with failures and if they were honest they would say it was their drive that got them there in the end. It was their commitment to completing the task that got them to the finishing line despite the pothole-ridden road they travelled. The truth is you could possibly follow a useless plan and still succeed. You can get from London to Brighton via Edinburgh but I wouldn't recommend it. Success is retrospective. You can't predict it but you can recognise it when you see it. True, there are principles that make success more likely but its never guaranteed.

My Father taught me an excellent principle for safe driving. He said that you should assume there was a potential hazard around every corner and over every ridge. You should therefore be ready to stop at any point. This is known as defensive driving. Its similar to Murphy's Law, which states that if anything can go wrong it will. Overarching this is the truth that if it has happened to anyone else it can happen to you. Yes you have unique talents and abilities; you may have an excellent strategy for earning your first million but unless you negotiate the potholes of commonality you're heading for potential disaster. It's not your unique talent that will get you there but your common sense.

*I am talking here about external factors such as racial discrimination within a police force where ethnicity is definitive but not causative

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Wrong Way Round

A critical look at the Full Gospel

I've just been listening to an address by Steve Jobs at Stanford University. He tells three stories, the last of which refers to death as a gift. He says that death clears out the old and makes way for the new, that to be reminded of death gives life more focus and immediacy. He makes good sense and in many respects I would agree with him except in one respect. Death is not a gift.

The shortest verse in the Bible is 'Jesus wept', a phrase abused by many who have never read the book. But even for those of us familiar with its context there is some confusion over its meaning. It comes in the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus and its often assumed that Jesus was sorrowful at the demise of his friend and sympathetic to the grief of Lazarus' sisters. However, seeing that Jesus was intending to raise Lazarus on that day its not likely he would be sorrowful. But the verse does indicate a strong emotion which some render as Jesus being angry.

Jesus found himself in a chaotic situation. Lazarus' sisters were mourning their brother, cut down in the prime of his life and were asking why Jesus had not come earlier when he would have been more use. Professional mourners were wailing and stirring up emotions of grief and sadness so that those, for whom the loss was poignant, could express their emotions and come to terms with the loss. That place stunk of death - no wonder Jesus was angry. In a few days time Jesus would be crucified and you can imagine him saying, 'Death, you can have me but you are not taking my friend'. Jesus came to defeat death and in Revelation we are told that death is finally thrown into the lake of fire. Death made Jesus burn with anger, it drew him to the cross and in him it met its match.

But this is not what I meant to say. Jobs was confronted with death when he discovered he had cancer (which has since killed him). At the time of this lecture he thought he'd beaten it but that, sadly, was not to be the case. Steve was obviously pleased that his cancer was operable but that wasn't the focus of his story - his focus was death and that within it there was hope. The hope of all Christians centres on death, the death and resurrection of our Lord and the demise of death itself. Lazarus died eventually, as did all those whom Jesus healed. But what's been eating away at me for several months is Christians' obsession with healing.

Over the last 200 years we've been introduced to a new gospel ('gospel' means 'good news') what has been coined the 'full gospel', the good news that Jesus came to give you healing and wholeness. But my recollection is that Jesus came to give us life and to live life more abundantly. These are not the same. Abundance doesn't require healing or wholeness but the realisation that however pain racked or guilt ridden we are, the kingdom of God is within us. You see salvation comes with good and bad news. The bad news is that you will suffer persecution and Jesus isn't going to rescue you from trouble or strife. The good news is that he will help you carry your burden and, when all things have been put under his feet, all sorrow and suffering, disease and discomfort will pass away.

Search on the Web for healing and wholeness and you will find countless self-help books and websites, holistic remedies and cures. You will also find a plethora of websites promoting Christian ministries of healing and wholeness, with stories of miraculous signs and wonders. They will tell you that God heals today just like Jesus did when he walked this earth - just like the Apostles did in the book of Acts. It's like visiting a carnival where the church has one of the stalls. So what makes the church stall different to all the others? The sad truth is, very little. I recently asked myself what difference it would make to my faith if Jesus were not God. I couldn't think of a good answer until I read Paul's letter to the Colossians and realised the Bible is like a stick of rock with Jesus written right down the middle. Break into it at any point and Jesus is there at the centre. The big difference isn't that Jesus' miracles are real and the rest are bogus or that emotional healing is more profound if you're a Christian. Many Christian healings are bogus and you don't have to look far to see screwed up Christians. The only real difference comes when Jesus is at the centre. It's all about him.

The greatest threat to road safety is speed. Our answer is to make cars safer to mitigate speed's effects but someone has said that what we could do with is a spike sticking out of the steering wheel. At least then we would have a healthy fear of our foe. For the Christian all roads lead to the cross. That's where Jesus defeated death, that's where we lay down our lives in the hope of the resurrection. For Steve Jobs it was death, not healing, that was the heart of his message. For him, facing death meant valuing life. For the Christian the cross is the gateway between death and life. In dying we live, in brokenness we find healing and in grief we find joy. Its not the other way round.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Psalm 6 (6): The Lord Accepts my Prayer

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 6 ===

Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Who is my enemy? Jesus reminded the Jews that they were taught to hate their enemy but love their neighbour. It was God's plan they should be set apart for him and the only way they could do that was to have a completely different lifestyle to their neighbour nations. Their neighbour nations practiced idolatry and witchcraft. They sacrificed their children, had little value for human life and were generally reprobates. This was not the pool where you would choose the mother of your children. So wherever Israel conquered they were to put to the sword every one of the inhabitants to rid the land of evil. This sounds like ethnic cleansing but the Jews were often reluctant to carry out the task. These were promiscuous and fun loving people - this was party time. But God had already called time on their debauchery - this was the morning after - clear up time. These enemies that David speaks of are not those he has fallen out with - they are enemies of God and everything God stands for.

But who is my enemy? Your enemy is not the mugger who wants your wallet or the colleague who steals your promotion. Your enemy isn't the politician who takes an opposite view to you on government policy. Your enemy is whatever stands between you and God. You can be your own worst enemy. It could be your lifestyle choices, your attitude, even your religious zeal. More importantly, your enemy is God's enemy. What does God hate? God hates oppression, injustice, apathy, greed, abuse and self-interest. Seek first the kingdom of God because that's where he rules in righteousness. Sit where he sits and see with his eyes. Feel his pain and weep with him over the sons of men. Feel the heat of his anger as he looks upon oppression and injustice. If you have a heart for God you will say, like Isaiah, "Here I am. Send me!"

Prayer

Lord, may our hearts burn as we look at the world through your eyes and teach us to love our enemies but hate yours. Let us see and worship the God of both the New and Old Testaments because you are unchanging. Help us to see the logs in our eyes without being obsessed with them. May we know your unmerited favour so that we can extend that grace to others.

Verse

"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the alter. With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sins atoned for."Then I heard the voice of the LORD saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here I am, send me!"(Isaiah 6:5-8).

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (5): I am worn out

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 5 ===

I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

There are no requests here, no plea for mercy or deliverance, no statement of faith, no occasion for dialogue. There are times when we have no wish to listen to reason or examine cause and effect. You would suppose that you know better than anyone what you are going through yet you can only see it from the inside and untangling reality from your perception is an almost impossible task. When someone casually asks how you are you might weigh up how you are doing financially, emotionally, professionally, arriving at an average where negatives are cancelled out by positives and you end up with a simple "OK". But David throws out all reason and appears to lose any sense of proportion. At first this appears to be a full-blown pity party but despite David's lack of objectivity we can see where his anxieties lie. His eyes grow weak for fear that he will be overtaken by his foes. In plumbing the depths of his emotions he arrives, not at objective truth, but at an understanding of where he's at and, therefore, where he must begin his recovery.

David was not a perfect king by any means but he was a man of integrity and depth. Before God he was prepared to face his demons and admit to his weaknesses. It's the way of kings and despots to be arrogant and dishonest. They feel they have to portray a man of strength with no weaknesses even though their people know this isn't true of any man. When people see you face life's difficulties with an honest and open heart they are more likely to respect you when tough decisions are to be made. It's said that Jesus was a man of sorrows yet we are prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth.

Prayer

Dear Lord, please bear with us when we open our hearts, even when they are filled with bitterness and lies. On the cross you bore all our sins so you know, first hand, all that burns within us and motivates us to do good and evil. It was not we who sought you out but you who sought us out so that we cannot claim to have found your grace by insight or sound judgement. While we were deep in sin you pulled us out. Father, lead us into all truth so that we can face life with integrity and sound judgement. Keep us from being arrogant and conceited, always having hearts open to you, so that we can be corrected and encouraged in the knowledge that you are our strength.

Verse

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation - if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Colossians 1:21-23).

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (4): No Praise from the Grave

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 4 ===

Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?

Notice how directly David speaks. He doesn't plead for God to deliver him or put in a request for God to answer when he gets time or has the inclination. But we should not imagine that David is presumptuous or, as the name it and claim it preachers would have it, is merely drawing on his account. For all the respect that David has for his Lord, the case is too urgent to shrink from pressing God for an answer to his troubles. He knows God is his deliverer and there is no one else to turn to. Better that God be angry at his impertinence than to test him with pathetic ifs. When he answered Job directly after days of listening to his defence of his own righteousness, God didn't demand that Job be silent, he said to Job, "Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me." God had listened to Job already and was prepared to hear him again. It was Job's humility that would not allow him to reply.

So did David think, "if God's love is unfailing why does it feel like he's deserted me? If he wants my praise why would he let me die?" Some would quote Paul, "To live is Christ to die is gain"; if our praise in heaven is to be more glorious than our less than perfect praise here on earth, what does it matter whether we live or die? Firstly, David doesn't have the benefit of Paul's wisdom nor the revelation that came with the death and resurrection of Jesus. David believed he would rest in Sheol with his fathers, a shadowy place that was a kind of refugee camp for dead souls awaiting their resurrection. Even the New Testament doesn't make it clear where we will be between death and resurrection. Paul says that we will sleep which suggests that David was about right. In any case, if salvation is merely a ticket to heaven why do we have to hang around here when we could be living it up beyond the pearly gates.

It's wrong to suppose that, because of our fuller knowledge through Jesus, we really see eternity much different to David. The only world we know is the one we live in; our only point of reference lies within this world. We still live in much the same world, neither in the paradise that Adam knew or the paradise that Jesus promises. This world will be swept away some day and any chance to praise God from here will be gone. Let us support our team even when we seem to be on the losing side because we will eventually be rewarded.

Prayer

O Lord, remind me of how precious life is, not just the sanctity of life itself but how precious each moment is. Let us not compare the life to come with our low expectations from this life because that would be a pointless comparison. Let us be a people who don't simply yearn to be in a better place but cry out to you to make our lives better in the place where we are. Let us not settle for being survivors but to live in the fullness of what you have done for us but then to know success in your terms not as the world would define it. We want to praise you throughout eternity, beginning at now.

Verse

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9)

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (3): Lord How Long

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 3 ===

How long, LORD, how long?

A recurrent theme throughout the Psalms, this sentiment is echoed throughout scripture. The first words we read in Genesis are "In the beginning"; the penultimate phrase in Revelation is "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (it is settled - we only await your coming Lord). We know God started it and have faith that God will finish it but even though God's revelation is completed and sealed it still awaits the finale. There's more to come but we must wait patiently. When Jesus was first presented at the temple he was welcomed by the prophetess Anna. She had been married for seven years when her husband died. Now at the age of 84 she saw what she had been waiting for her whole life. Moses, the only man who ever met God face to face, was 120 when the Israelites finally reached the Promised Land only to be forbidden entry. Abraham who alone was called the friend of God was 100 when his wife bore his child of the promise.

You often hear preachers telling listeners to claim their healing, their inheritance, their prosperity, their job or whatever it is they are praying for. These so called anointed preachers claim to have a hot line to God yet their ignorance exposes the truth that they don't know the God they preach. They wrongly assume that the new covenant, instituted by Jesus' death and resurrection, means that everything is theirs to claim here and now. They claim to honour Moses and Abraham and are forever referring to them yet they claim that their own experience of God is greater because of their greater revelation. They are modern Gnostics promising a superior relationship with God through revelation. There is no room in their thinking for long suffering, patience, failure, persecution or adversity. They are quacks and peddlers of God's word, tricksters and illusionists, deceived and twice damned. They preach a false gospel and would deceive the elect, if that were possible.

There is no real answer to the question, 'how long?' God doesn't treat us like pawns and it's not for us to wait for God as if there is a set time for everything; that if we hold on it will surely come to pass because God has willed it. I no longer pray to know God's will, I pray for wisdom, help and guidance in the knowledge that I have God's Spirit within me and as I learn to walk with him I hope our hearts will begin to beat as one. Jesus said that he and the Father were one and that he did the will of he who sent him yet from the Gospel accounts we see a man who is no automaton following instructions but one so close to his commander that no instructions are necessary. Yet in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus submitted himself to God's will against every other voice to the contrary. The waiting was over; now was the time.

Each of us will have a garden experience where time is no longer the issue - when everything is racing at the speed of light and you are being asked to make a decision that will have eternal consequences. We must learn to use the "how long Lord" times as preparation for when the "what - NOW?" arrives. Life seems to come in teaspoons and buckets and there's no point in wishing for jugs.

Prayer

Dear Lord I believe that what happened on the cross was complete in itself for you said yourself that it was finished. Yet if you had not risen again we too would indeed be finished. You went to the Father and sent us a comforter because for us the work had only begun. You foresaw hardship in the form of persecution and being children of God we are also disciplined in order that we should be conformed to your likeness. Father please do not test me to my limits for I can bear far more than I care to, but allow me to share in the long suffering of your Son that I may share in his glory.

Verse

When times are good be happy; but when times are bad consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. (Ecclesiastes 6:14).

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (2): Lord Have Mercy on Me

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 2 ===

Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.

It may be that David was physically ill. If so, this was either life threatening or so debilitating that David felt compelled to ask for mercy. We all know how paralysing a headache can be - that it can cause or be made worse through stress - so we hardly need to know the detail of his discomfort to understand his anguish, only that he is deeply troubled. That the Psalms don't rhyme has nothing to do with the translation; Hebrew poetry often uses repetition to emphasis a point. Here we see a theme repeated twice but from a new perspective each time.

David is faint, in agony and deeply troubled, everything you would associate with a severe illness, but just as illness causes distress, so does distress manifest itself in physical symptoms. We hear much these days about holistic medicine whereby the whole body is treated as a combination of physical, mental and spiritual. Modern medicine acknowledges that a person's state of mind can have a significant impact on their physical wellbeing. It's been said that the majority of cases seen by a GP have a significant psychological dimension and increasing numbers of surgeries have been employing specialists to meet needs that have now been recognised as genuine.

In biblical times it was common for illness to be thought to have a moral connection and the word disease (dis + ease) suggests being out of sorts with yourself and your environment. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul says, "May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless." Many have used this to justify their view that we are made up of three distinct parts but I'm sure that Paul means our whole lives. Both Jesus and Paul argue that it is not your body that's evil (even though its wasting away) but what is in your heart. We think of the heart being our core being yet in Hebrew scripture, that which is rendered 'heart' in English often means intestines (our gut), which is where we feel things most deeply. We will have a resurrection body but if God only saves our soul what role will our body have? Jesus, after his resurrection, had a spiritual body that could disappear through walls yet eat a fish. We acknowledge Jesus with our mind yet scripture says nothing of the brain. There is clearly no biblical systematic theology of man in a physiological sense.

David clearly sees every aspect of his life as merely an expression of where he is in his relationship with God. His life force is fading; his frame is crumbling; he is struggling as a person. As we shall hear later, he feels oppressed by his enemies. Whatever ails him, his LORD is the remedy. If God were to write a prescription the remedy would be shalom - peace, healing and wholeness that can only come from knowing God who will enrich his life in every way.

Prayer

Lord, in a world that divides families, communities and nations - prescribe shalom for my life. Restore what has been broken by others and by myself. You have promised healing for the nations; ignore my craving for physical health when it would make me complacent and unmindful of the suffering of others. Have mercy on me Lord for you alone can bring true restoration.

Verse

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9)

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (1): Lord Deliver Me

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

= Introduction =

Turn O LORD and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave?

Not every Psalm entitled 'A psalm of David' can reliably be ascribed to the king himself but this one bears all the hallmarks of this resilient yet vulnerable, confident yet contrite ruler of Israel. It seems to be in the darkest times we meet face to face with our maker, when we have a true heart-to-heart - as if we have to come to the end of ourselves to find the beginning of God. Psalm 6 finds David at this place but the scenario doesn't present a jelly of a man pleading for mercy. Rather, we see someone who, even in the depths of despair, has a quiet and undying confidence in a God who is not to be served in blind allegiance. "Test me in this", says the LORD (from the mouth of the prophet Malachi). "Press hard after God" others have said.

=== 1 ===

LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.

In John's Gospel we read of a man born blind. The disciples ask whose sin it was that resulted in his blindness. It was generally accepted that suffering was a punishment from God. Job's friends had no doubt that his troubles were the result of sin that he would not admit to and it may be that David had his own detractors who were more than happy to say "I told you so". It's not clear where David sees his troubles coming from, but what is clear is that he believes God to be sovereign.

If this is from God, David wants assurance that he is not angry with him; it's one thing to suffer and another to have God as your enemy. In Samuel 24, David sins against the LORD and he has the choice of being humiliated by his enemies or being struck by God. He decides to "fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men."

Whatever its origin, David takes his suffering to God because he knows that God will deliver him. His only fear is that God is angry and vengeful; but if this is the case he has no recourse anyway. Why fear men who act on a whim when you know exactly where you stand with God. Why fear men who may condemn you but cannot ultimately deliver you. Its best to cut out the middleman: forget the monkey; speak to the organ grinder. David knows that in all things God disciplines him for his own good but first he must settle accounts.

Prayer

LORD, if I have caused you to be angry or occasioned your wrath, please forgive me because I cannot stand against you. If you are against me I have no hope. If you will forgive me, by all means rebuke and discipline me because I know that I will benefit in the end. Prune me so that I will bear fruit; polish me so that I will reflect your glory; teach me and I will be wise.

Verse

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Proverbs, 27:6)

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Exceptionally Ordinary

There are numerous times when I have vowed to press on with my foot to the floor only to find myself stalling at each bend. It's an easy thing to take a long view on the destination and make good initial progress, pumped with adrenaline and inspiration. Many fall at the finish unable (or unwilling) to make the last bit of ground but more die in the middle. Corpses pile high in the side streets and cul-de-sacs of life. Unmentioned to the starters and forgotten by the finishers, they are an embarrassment and only leave an unpleasant smell. What do you say of someone who aborts when the job is half done, for whom there is no return on the investment - a write off - a liability - collateral damage.

Life is an opportunity but while for some it's a revolving door, for others it's a quarter light. The vista may be the same but some need to stand closer to the window to see it. I'm not speaking of those who don't realize their potential but manage to get through life without causing any visible damage. I'm speaking of those who just run out of steam, the bright starters who take wrong turns or take on one too many hills. I'm thinking of myself, stalling at yet another bend and wondering how the gearbox has managed to survive, not that I was a bright starter.

If life were simply about bright starters, good finishers and urban casualties it would be a sad story indeed. We enter the world naked and exit alone but no one passes through without their life touching someone else's. No one can say they were successful entirely on their own. To be alone is a measure of failure on someone's part. We look up to the successful for inspiration and try to learn from other's mistakes in order to make the finish line with dignity and a sense of achievement. We hope that our children take the right path and make the most of every opportunity.

I can't see the finish line from here and it all started so long ago. I seem to keep heading down cul-de-sacs but there always seems to be a path at the end leading to another way. The 23rd Psalm is the favourite of many - "He makes me lie down in green pastures" - but when you walk through the "valley of the shadow of death" the path is hard to follow. Its not a route you would choose to take - failure and loneliness are heavy weights to carry - but it's the way of the common man and the lot of many who fall by the wayside. The lost don't look to the successful; they find strength in the humanity of fellow strugglers, the frequenters of cul-de-sacs. They are inspired not by those who are ordinarily exceptional but who are exceptionally ordinary.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Listening

I have a friend who is facing some difficult questions and trying to make sense of relationships. Life never stands still and as much as we'd like to rewrite some of our story we can do little more than paint over the painful bits or reconcile the first chapters with a good ending. I don't know if she is trying to make sense of the twisted thinking that causes people to choose a life of mutual abuse, searching for a strand of reason in the dogmatic assertions of self and institutionally appointed leaders of religious groups or listening to the latter as a distraction from the former. But she seems to have an appetite for engaging with people with unorthodox, and sometimes destructive, takes on life.

I suspect she is hoping to put all her experiences together in a kind of patchwork, which may look chaotic at close quarters but makes some sense when viewed from a distance, in the third person as it were. My fear is that by exposing herself to people who are seeking to influence others, however removed she thinks she is, she is exposing herself to indoctrination or even antithesis whereby she is building a mind map filled of road blocks without signs giving alternative routes. Living a life of avoidance can be as damaging as living profligately.

We can't avoid meeting people who seek to impose their beliefs on us or who are so narrow minded that everything they say is a mantra but when in close proximity to them or their ranting we need to be sure our moral compass remains true. We should not avoid people who we disagree with, who hold opposing beliefs or whom we find difficult to argue with. We shouldn't dismiss, out of hand, personal attacks or critical opinions that are directed towards us. In truth there may be no justification for such an attack but there is probably an underlying reason, which may have nothing to do with us. We can be sure that our perception of self or others is never entirely accurate.

If we allow ourselves to double think every conversation and consider every point of view, afraid that we might be too dogmatic or opinionated, we will be so compliant that our opinion will count for nothing. In most circumstances to be 90% right is more than acceptable and probably too self-assured. We should all be 'of an opinion' but not be so opinionated that we cannot be corrected. We should all have beliefs that we vigorously defend against all but the most convincing of proofs. And cherished beliefs that we never surrender. We should seek to have an answer that can justify our position and a respect for the opinion of others even when they can't.

You always have the right to your opinion so long as others have a right to theirs. The right to speak carries with it the obligation to listen.

In decent

I've recently been accused of not being decent. On my online dictionary it's defined as: conforming to the recognized standard of propriety, good taste, modesty, etc; in other words (or one other word), proper. It's a surprisingly subjective definition in that not only does it depend on something that's commonly (if not universally) accepted but also on our own preconceptions of what is acceptable and, to some extent, on context. It would be considered indecent to walk through the streets naked but minimal coverage would render that person acceptable on a standard British beach. On a nudist beach a fully clothed person could be considered improper whereas a partly dressed person might draw criticism in any of these contexts.

We sometimes ask, "What would be the decent thing to do?" and it could be the case that none of those being asked fulfils the criteria yet there is no presumption of condemnation that being indecent would suggest. Often when someone is told, "make yourself look decent" the assumption is not that they are indecent but that to present themselves in public in their current state would render them so. If we take it to mean 'proper' then we are either questioning the person's suitability for a purpose or if they are the real deal. Is that person the proper candidate for a specific role and are they what they claim to be? To legitimately call someone 'not decent' either begs more questions or gives the accused just cause to offer a defence.

Being told you are not a decent person is quite unpleasant and I would suspect that even people with skins of the thicker variety would wince a little when being confronted with such a charge. One reaction is to justify one's self but proclaiming, "I am a decent person" has a hollow and hypocritical ring to it. It seems as though we can add to our honour or remain anonymous but once our character is impugned we are indelibly marked. It seems to be peculiar to the human condition that praise is pleasant and motivating but transient and fickle. You're only as good as your last success but mud sticks. The test of character is not how well you can wear praise but in being able to bear ignominy with dignity; also to be able to own criticism without accepting condemnation.

The very fact that to be decent requires us to conform to some arbitrary standard of behaviour (prescribed by society in a general or even intimate sense) means that we are not free to judge or justify our own decency or propriety. We must stand before our peers and make our case. As a species we are gregarious and no matter how much we claim not to care what others think we are, not one of us, an island; at least not without a bridge or shallow moat. The answer to shame is therefore not to burn our bridges but to build better ones. Not to retreat into hovels of despair or patch up the tears but to build new houses and weave new coverings. Despite its meanness and baying for blood, society is poorer for having victims and outcasts and as satisfying as it is to be judgemental it hurts the giver more than the receiver. Forgiveness may be a bitter pill to swallow but it brings healing and has a sweet after taste.

Be it Geronimo (thorn in the side of imperialist America) or Oscar Wilde (deviant, shunned by polite society) villains often become heroes in the end who, on balance, leave a legacy, which enriches more than their sins (perceived or real) impoverish. We need the moral courage to be open to the rehabilitation, not only of ourselves, but also those we deem to have acted improperly. It's not for us to forgive those who have acted in such a heinous manner as to sever every connection with moral society but where there is a connection we have an obligation to reach out rather than pull away. We need to live in the hope that good will win in the end; not that the wicked are punished but that society is redeemed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

You Must Follow Me

The Lord Loves the Righteous

I can't say I expected to enjoy Psalm 146 when I opened up my Bible to its page. I'm not into happy clappy at the moment and this Psalm is the first of the Hallelujah Psalms that conclude this series of books but then I have been surprised how I've suddenly taken to these pearls that I've never truly appreciated before.

Predictably it starts with 'Praise the Lord'. You often hear this proclaimed in Pentecostal type churches as if it were a Christian alternative to 'wow'. Of course it's a call to give honour to God not a declaration of happiness. I could spend a great deal of time expounding on each verse but instead I'll major on the line that most caught my eye. About two thirds of the way through we are told, 'the Lord loves the righteous', but why would I find that noteworthy? Surely God rewards us for our good deeds. Is it not the righteous who will go to heaven and the sinners who will be toasted?

The problem comes in the Gospels because Jesus tells us that he came for the lost - for the sinners, not for the righteous. It was the Pharisees who dotted the i's and crossed the t's when it came to doing right yet Jesus criticised them in the strongest terms. He called them children of the devil, white washed tombs, men who stood at the gate, unable to enter and keeping others out. The Pharisee who thanked God for his own righteousness was condemned while a self-professed sinner was justified. Repeatedly Jesus declared that it was by faith that his followers were saved and he went out of his way to find the worst reprobates. Surely God hates the righteous.

Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms begins, 'Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord'. The Old Testament is full of such phrases while Paul says that the Law will not make us acceptable to God because it's impossible for us to live up to its standards. More than this, God considers it an insult for us to even think we can attain the holiness he requires by self-effort. I value the Gospel of grace and hate moralistic religion and I thought that was how God saw it. The easy answer is that Jesus' sacrifice has fulfilled the requirements of the law and all references to attaining righteousness in the Old Testament are simply outmoded and, in retrospect, point to Jesus who is our righteousness. But this doesn't wash especially when you read David's plea to God for mercy in Psalm 51, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. In it he declares, 'The sacrifices of God are ... a broken and contrite heart'. And there are plenty of other hints of a God of grace either explicit or implied.

There's one explanation I've discovered which pretty well nails it for me, that the righteousness that God accepts is faithfulness to his covenant. One of the mistakes the Pharisees made was that they thought being righteous meant obeying the rules but they failed to see covenant in the way God sees it. Throughout the Bible God likens the Covenant to marriage - God being the husband - and a successful marriage is not based on obeying a set of rules but on being faithful to your partner. This involves honouring, cherishing, preferring, sacrifice and love in all its colours. Jeremiah sums it up beautifully.

"...because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them", declares the Lord. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people."

God demanded obedience from Israel not because it was written on stone tablets but because it was a covenant of love to a chosen race. God loved the world but he married Israel. Under the new covenant Jesus' only command is that we love one another. He doesn't ask us to follow any rules but simply to live a life of love and who can argue with that?

How many times have you heard someone declare that what God requires is for you to take Jesus as your personal saviour? I don't think that phrase exists anywhere in the Bible. Paul says that some of the Corinthian believers died because they broke bread without considering fellow believers. They acknowledged their 'personal' saviour yet dishonoured his bride so they were law-breakers whom God hates. Many times in the New Testament, believers are referred to as saints but nowhere is anyone called a saint. God calls us to account for our own sins yet when Jesus gives us a sneak preview of judgement day it's not personal sins he asks us to account for. "When were you hungry and we didn't feed you? When were you in prison and we didn't visit you?" Jesus tells us that it was our brother and sister who were in need but we were too busy crying 'Praise the Lord' to notice.

It's the New Testament Jeremiah, John the Apostle, who tells us:

"Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness." Earlier in his letter he says, "If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin".

Don't you think it's amazing that John puts fellowship before the blood of Jesus? It's not putting the cart before the horse, that Jesus' blood is less important, but that if we don't recognise that we are all bound in one covenant we dishonour Jesus' sacrifice and grace is nullified. The cart carries the payload but the horse must come first.

If we walk in the Spirit - loving one another, we prove our salvation and join the ranks of the righteous whom God loves. Though its not our righteousness it is reckoned to us by faith which James says, "I will show you by what I do," who also says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world". In Galatians Paul tells us that on his visit to Jerusalem, all the apostles asked was that the poor were remembered. They must have had some pretty heavy theological debates yet that was the one thing Paul came away with. It's the true covenant keepers that God loves, who carry his law in their hearts. Those, who like Paul, take up the slack "in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church", not only for those who fill the pews but those who are poor, blind and ignorant - the 'lost' who need the Good news that Jesus died for them. So does God not love sinners too? Well, as Jesus said to Peter at the end of John's Gospel, "What is that to you? You must follow me."

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pointing the Finger

But let all who take refuge in you be glad
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

Psalm 5 v11

Psalm 5 is curious. In Psalms 1,2 and 3 we are told of God's faithfulness and how he rewards those who seek him. Little demand is made on God to meet the needs of his people, the reciprical relationship is simply stated. In Psalm 4 David is finding that the promises of the first three psalms cannot be assumed. Sometimes God witholds his blessing for reasons known only to him. That doesn't mean that he is fickle or capricious - its because we are presumptious and shallow; as the saying goes: "easy come, easy go". In Psalm 5 David is in distress like in Psalm 4 but this time he doesn't demand an answer or an action, only that God listens. "In the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation." I wonder if, in the depths of despair and fully conscious of his own sinfulness - in no doubt that God is his only hope (Psalm 4), that David can see clearly the grace and mercy of God. The lack of urgency here suggests that there is no crisis but there are undercurrents that worry the king. He is still conscious of his need for God but not so conscious of God's presence.

He begins by asking God to keep an open ear and proceeds to describe those that God will not listen to - "The arrogant cannot stand in your presence." Further on he asks God to "Banish them for their many sins" but to "bless the righteous." Where is Jesus' call to love your enemies and bless those who curse you. Is this not hypocritical? Where does David get off on pointing the finger? The key, I think, is where David says, "Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies - make straight your way before me." Notice how he says 'your way' not 'my way'. In separating the righteous from the wicked he isn't making a distinction between them and us. His hesitation in demanding God come to his aid is because he's finding it difficult to distinguish who are the wicked. Don't you think he is fearful that 'they' are more righteous then 'he'. Where does he stand if God answers their prayers and not his: "Lead me BECAUSE of my enemies".

We can be so sure of the justice of our cause, while dismissing others as 'wicked'. Hosni Mubarak has stepped down and Egypt will hopefully be free from tyrany but the people of Egypt are not going to look favourably on the West because it was us who supported the dictator. Who was more wicked - the repressive regime or the Western governments that supported it for their own ends? "Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you." For me this is the highlight of the psalm. When David asks the LORD to lead him in righteousness he is asking that God cover his sin. He asks God for a straight path otherwise he'll get lost on the way. We are so hopeless and sinful we even need God to help us pray and not be too particular about who he listens to. Compare Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand.

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Promises Promises

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Psalm 23 vv5&6

Its clear from Psalms that David sees God as a king like himself. Just as the kings of his day had vassal kings under them so David recognises himself as a subject king before the LORD. If David has been called to the table of the King of kings his enemies had better not touch him. That God should then anoint him and fill his cup to overflowing should fill the hearts of his enemies with terror for in opposing God's Anointed, the one God has favoured, they oppose God himself.

'Follow' in 'will follow me' literally means to pursue. While his enemies flee, the blessings of God which 'surely' follow on from his anointing will not only be available for him but will pester him till he receives them. But this is far more than a promise to bless. Jesus tells us he is the good shepherd yet, reading Psalm 23, I can't help but see Jesus as the lamb sustained by his shepherd-father on the path to Jerusalem, shadowed by death in Gethsemane and glorified at Golgotha where he was mocked by his enemies.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.*

We are foolish to depend on a promise unless we know the basis on which that promise was made. On February 14, millions of cards will be given, proclaiming undying and everlasting love but there is only one love we can totally depend on - a love not based on emotion, duty, relationship or even devotion but on a covenant, sealed in blood. "Will you still love me tomorrow?" the song asks. "Don't just take my word for it", Jesus says, "see what I did for you."

* Colossians 2:13-15

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Call Out the Plumber

Answer me when I call to you
O my righteous God.

Psalm 4 v1

When you go to the doctor with an ailment you should not expect to walk out of the surgery cured. He will more than likely give you a prescription for a course of tablets and ask you to come back if it doesn't clear up. He may refer you to someone more qualified to treat your complaint. On the other hand, if you had a burst pipe in your house you would not expect the plumber to refer you to a specialist or give you a series of instructions, asking you to call back if the problem persists. You wouldn't expect to do anything yourself, other than to call him out and be there when he calls.

When David asks God for an answer he's expecting a plumber. "Give me relief from my distress" he says - stop the leak. "How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false Gods?" David has placed his hope in the LORD but his people are trusting in false Gods to meet their needs. They are using the cheap leaky pipes their Canaanite neighbours swear by. Any glory they might have received is shamefully pouring all over the floor yet the taps are dry. "Offer right sacrifices and turn to the LORD", David says. Don't put up with counterfeit goods, they will only let you down. "You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound," he proclaims. There's water everywhere but why drink out of muddy puddles when you can drink pure water from the tap. "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety." What price, peace and safety. The genuine article usually costs more but it's worth it.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy", Jesus said, "but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven". "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also".

If you were going to a fancy restaurant for an expensive meal you wouldn't pop into McDonalds for a cheeseburger to keep you going, you'd save yourself. How many celebrities have had a bit on the side and wrecked their marriages and possibly their careers? David was as guilty as anyone for lusting after abundant, cheap wine but he knew that God could fill his heart with a greater joy because he was a man after God's own heart.

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Monday, February 07, 2011

No Smoke

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD delivers me.

Psalm 3 v5

Smoke might continue to rise long after the fire is put out and, innocent or not, one embroiled in a scandal will always have that whiff of burning around them. It seems unfair that despite the principle of innocent until proven guilty, once tarred, the accused will always be conscious of a mark even if the stain is removed. You can rewrite history but the rubbings out remain. It's as if we imagine the perfect life to be one of continuous success without regret but the truth is: those that are most successful are often those that make the most mistakes on the way. Strength comes from persevering even when falsely accused, not blaming your situation on circumstances but triumphing over adversity.

Psalm 3 is King David's cry to God when he has been hounded out of Jerusalem by Absalom, his own son. Looking back, David would see a chain of events leading up to this treachery beginning with his own sinful actions. As an insult to his father, Absalom sleeps with his father's concubines in a tent erected in full view of the residents of Jerusalem but David can't point the finger without considering his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba. He takes it on the chin acknowledging that God can remove or restore his kingship as he wills. In 2 Samuel 15 we read that David takes the Ark of the Covenant with him as he flees but sends it back to Jerusalem where it belongs. In his distress David wants God in the centre of his world like a genie in a bottle but he knows that, instead, his heart must be in the centre of God's will. If he's to be king it can only be in Jerusalem.

David begins by counting his foes. He knows they are saying, "God will not deliver him", and these are his own people. In the next breath he declares, "You bestow glory on me and lift up my head". "He answers me from his holy hill". David assumes God's blessing, not in arrogance but because God isn't one to change his mind. The Ark still resides in Jerusalem and he is still God's anointed. Though tens of thousands oppose him David is able to sleep and when he awakes he understands that it was God who kept him through the night.

What do we know of God's character except what he shows as a mentor in our own lives? Would it be arrogant to pray to God, "do what I would do"? Is it not a compliment when our children tell us to do what we have been telling them for years? From his own kingship, David to some degree understands the mind of God and how the King of kings would deal with his adversaries. "Arise, O Lord", says David, "and do what you would have me do".

"From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people". David isn't just king of his castle, he's the leader of his people. What he knows of God he wishes for those who look up to him. All will be resolved, God will be glorified and the people will be blessed.

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Fatherhood of Kings

Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance
the ends of the earth your possession

Psalm 2 v8

Psalm 2 was written to inaugurate a new king. "Why do the nations conspire", asks the psalmist. The obvious answer is: with a new untested king with no accomplishments under his belt, what better time to revolt. However, the question is rhetorical because the "one enthroned in heaven laughs". "The rulers gather together against ... his Anointed One". "You are my son", says the King of kings, "today I have become your Father". Apparently the relationship of father and son was not unusually declared between a high ruler and his subject king. In this we see the father-son relationship as much more than a biological bond. It's a relationship of respect and trust that is more than simply sharing DNA.

There appears to be a simple message. What God has ordained, tamper with at your peril. The one God has anointed stands not on his or her own authority but in the stead of God himself. When you argue with God's representative you argue with him. For the Jews, the Anointed One was not only their appointed king, but also the future messiah who could truly boast of the earth being his possession. Now when Jesus says, "Whatever you ask in my name", he looks on us as co-heirs in his inheritance. We can't think of ourselves being in any way equal with Christ but we can look back at the monarchy of Israel and David in particular and see the father-son relationship in action.

David was a man after God's own heart. We can't suppose that God will give us whatever we want or even what we think he should give us but as subject kings, acting on his behalf and with a heart for his kingdom we can expect God to laugh at the conspirators and rebuke whatever stands in our way. We should also consider that becoming a father is more about mutual respect than genetics.

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Not So the Wicked

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Psalm 1 v4

Early Psalters have Psalm one as a prologue to the books of Psalms, there being five in all. In this respect there is a striking similarity between the beginning of Psalms and Proverbs. Both present the principle that the one who follows the way of righteousness will prosper while the wicked will perish in their folly. The Bible could never claim to be concise and to the point - that's why so many books are written on biblical themes, collecting the pieces together into a coherent block of understanding. We need square shaped instructions to fit our square shaped faith. The first nine chapters of Proverbs and Psalm one provide that for us so that when we are handed a round block we instinctively know it won't fit and there's no point in trying.

However we all know that life is never actually that straight forward. There are no perfectly square pegs or perfectly round holes, just as we know that the wicked do prosper because they cheat on the righteous. We also know that there is no clear line between the righteous and the wicked and, if truth be told, none of us can claim to be righteous. But before you learn to fix something you need to know how it was designed to work and first principles are always a good place to start. Psalm One is the duffer's guide to life. It's exquisitely crafted yet its truths are transparent and simply stated.

The psalm begins with three negatives - what the blessed man doesn't do - and covers all the angles. He does not walk, stand or sit in the company of the wicked. In other words, he doesn't practice what the wicked do, doesn't agree or co-operate with sinners or sit and watch while they carry out their evil.

Don't eat spaghetti wearing a white shirt. However good you are you are bound to get sauce on it.

What does the blessed man do? He studies God's Law. Does that make him good? No! By learning the ways of righteousness he plants himself not in a stagnant bog but by a stream of clean water. That way he is like a healthy tree that bears fruit at the right time (guaranteeing sustenance) and is always in leaf (providing shelter). We are told he is prosperous. The wicked prosper only through plunder and enrich only themselves. The righteous can prosper even when they have nothing because they bless others in everything they do. What of the wicked? They're like chaff - just blown away.

If the righteous are beautiful, splendid trees you'd expect the wicked to be miserable stumps but for the psalmist they're a waste of words. They're just dust. The psalm begins with the 'council' of the wicked and ends with the 'assembly' of the righteous. The wicked are like dust that accumulates in the corner of the yard, blown by the wind. The righteous are planted by the river of life where the LORD watches over them. Even if the wicked were invited they would blow away with the slightest breeze.

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Songs of Joy

He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

Psalm 126 v6

I almost read this psalm by accident as I had started reading Psalm 125. However as R.E.O White* pointed out, in the NIV Commentary, 126 recalls Psalm 85 which I have just studied. The Psalms have never been a focus of inspiration for me. They can't be said to be contemporary nor are they a reliable source of theology. "The Lord is my shepherd", sounds wonderful but what does that mean to me? But now I'm reading the Bible as a book that cross-references itself from beginning to end. It's fascinating to read each passage as if looking through the fragment of a shattered window. As you look closely through each shard you see the same picture that you would from a single pane but from a unique angle. To read Psalm 126 simply as one of the songs of ascents as they are collectively known (120 through 134) is to lose its significance. What it does is present two views of the same scenario in two stanzas.

"When the LORD [restored the fortunes of] Zion"**

Reads: 'How wonderful it is to be back in Jerusalem after all those years in Babylon. How honoured we are, among the nations, that God should be so good to us'.

"Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev."

Reads: 'Here we are back home but what a mess!' The Negev dried up in the summer so this is a picture of arriving back with the water cut off, no electricity and the house trashed. Isn't this like having a great time at church then, on returning home, arguing over whose turn it was to do the washing up and guess who forgot to defrost dinner. When you sang how God provides you weren't thinking of a frozen chicken. It's about the now but not yet - its like viewing a house and saying it has potential.

The psalmist doesn't scold the people for being downcast - it appears to be a disaster - but encourages them, saying its OK to weep but don't let that stop you sowing for when the rains come (and the streams of the Negev fill up again) because then it will be too late. What you see with your eyes is the same home you saw in your dreams. Hold on to, and live, the promise because it will come to those who are faithful.

* (Elwell, A.E [ed.])

** alternative taken from the NIV notes. The main text reads "When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion..."

References

Elwell, A.E. (1989) The Marshall Pickering Commentary on the NIV (Psalms by R.E.O White)
Marshall Pickering, London

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Forgiveness and Trust

Love and faithfulness meet together;
Righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Psalm 85 v10

Though not stated, this psalm appears to refer to the exiles from Babylon and the conditions in which they find themselves. They had been exiled for turning their back on God and for over 50 years were forced to live in a country that was alien to them in every way. Yet on account of his faithfulness (not their righteousness), God brought them back to their homeland. What God didn't do was fix the mess they'd left behind. It was one thing to look back at the glory they had squandered; it was another to honour God's grace and repay him for giving them a second chance.

"You expected much but it turned out to be little", says Haggai the Prophet. Why? "Because of my house, which remains a ruin". How often have we heard, "I will do anything you want if you will do this for me", only for that person to renege on their pledge once they have what they want. True to form, the exiles first concern was to settle in and once they were happy, God would have his wish too. It's not that God was happy for them to live in squalor while he lived in a palace but that the self-seeking, me first attitude was alive and well despite the lesson of exile.

"You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins", declares the psalmist, but "forgiveness is not all", says R.E.O White*. If you've stolen sweets from the cupboard and been found out; if you've shown remorse and been given permission to take another but grab a large handful you will probably be permanently barred from that cupboard even if the forgiveness stands. Forgiveness isn't given so that you can sin again but to give you the chance to change your ways without the guilt of the old sins hanging over you. That you've been barred isn't a sign that you're not loved, it's a sign you can't be trusted. Forgiveness of sins is probably the most popular (and most utilized) aspect of the Christian message. The building of trust (or honouring God) probably doesn't make it into the top three.

The psalmist continues, "I will listen to what God the LORD will say; he promises peace to his people, his saints - but let them not return to folly". Thankfully, not only does God forgive, he also forbears. Otherwise this statement is redundant. We now hear the beautiful words with which I began this article. The psalmist has married love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace. To love God is to be faithful; peace does not exist without righteousness. "Faithfulness springs forth from the earth and righteousness looks down from heaven". We now have the complete picture.

Only when our love and faithfulness is blessed by God's righteousness will we have peace. It's perfect symbiosis. It's the rhythm of life, God and his people in perfect harmony. "The LORD will indeed give what is good".

* (Elwell, A.E [ed.])

References

Elwell, A.E. (1989) The Marshall Pickering Commentary on the NIV (Psalms by R.E.O White)Marshall Pickering, London

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Capturing the Moment

Your average family photo has a group of people smiling into the camera. You can usually identify the year, give or take a few, by the décor, hairstyles and clothes but beyond that it's not very enlightening. The snap that stands out usually, as we say, captures the moment. A freeze frame, its not so much a statement as a scenario that invites you to answer all the questions that it poses. What is that person thinking? What came before? What happens next? The moment is the subject and everything else is incidental.

Life is rarely rehearsed, though we would often like to take a peak at the script, but is usually posed. We think about how we dress, days are usually planned to some extent, we have protocols for how we interact with others, especially those we don't know and surprises are not often welcomed unless they are ones we would have approved of had we been informed. It's normally in times of crisis that we find ourselves frozen in a perpetual moment. These moments are the ones that get played back, like a scene from a movie, each time you find yourself removed from the stage to be a spectator of your own life, where the moment becomes the subject and you, merely an actor.

In times of personal tragedy you find yourself in a surreal world where everything is fluid, where you can pick out characters and events but there is no order or continuity. In other crises the world is merely distorted as if viewed through a fish eye. Sometimes there is an uneasy calm where you can assess the situation knowing that all hell will break loose once the camera starts rolling again. My life has more than enough freeze frames interrupting the continuity that would otherwise help me rebuild my fragmented and disordered life.

When life follows a pattern you need only make small corrections and minor repairs to maintain your lifestyle. These can be done on the fly, as it were. When the fabric has been removed and the structure dismantled you need to continually assess the progress and rework your strategy. The temptation is to dream of the completed project and despair of the numerous and often onerous tasks that seem to make such a small impact on what you would like to achieve. Yet if ignored, they can bring your life crashing down. At the moment I feel like I'm caught in an ambush with events to the left of me and my own folly to the right.

The choices appear to be despair or resignation. But I wonder if there is a third way - illumination - to take advantage of the freeze frame and examine what came before and, in the light of that, take charge of what comes next. The world seems to be divided into victims and survivors. Ironically, it's the victims who merely survive (if they don't perish). What if I could tell my grand kids, "that was the turning point of the war, when the penny dropped and victory was secured".

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On the Ledge

I can fully understand why people turn to drink. Life is sometimes like standing on a thin ledge, looking into an abyss. There is no way forward, you can only sidle along the ledge that appears to narrow in the only direction you can take. There are two options: to fall into the darkness or make your way along the ledge. The simplest option is to give up and fall but you can't change your mind once you have made that decision. On the off chance that, by some miracle, another alternative should present itself you have left yourself no recourse. The ledge is the best option only because it's the least bad. There's no telling when it will give out or how many sideways steps will be required to get you to safety. There seems a third option though it's no option at all.

When there's no real alternative you're forced to escape reality and find refuge in the havens of the mind. When the storm steals every semblance of peace and stability you must find a harbour to regain your equilibrium - to study the maps and calibrate your compass. But when the captain refuses to take charge you must throw caution to the wind and take any course rather than remain in the maelstrom. Anything is better than being faced with the stark realities of despair and destruction. Hope isn't a far off glimpse of future happiness but a slender thread that barely keeps you this side of sanity.

When you're on a well-worn path with kerns to let you know that others have been this way and the odd sign to confirm the route, you can enjoy the journey and imagine the welcome that awaits you at the journey's end. With provisions and a coat to keep you dry you can enjoy whatever the weather brings you and take note of sights that line your way. Whether you have planned the journey or - in the case of the one on the ledge - it has been forced on you, you cannot guarantee the outcome. We all face an uncertain future to some degree but the one on the ledge can't enjoy the present, the time in which we all live. Some live by faith, none live by hope.

For those that would turn to the bottle or other means of escape, the future holds no promise and seems a prospect more cruel than being stranded on the ledge. As Solomon said, "whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie." Wherever you are going you must start from here and until you can accept where you are you will not truly begin your journey. Make no promises to the one on the ledge except that others have been on that ledge and survived. It's a horrible place to be. "To be, or not to be" someone famous once said.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Context is Everything

The Message of Ecclesiastes

"Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the teacher."

So begins the book of Ecclesiastes. The teacher opens himself up to all that life has to offer - no holds barred - and comes to the conclusion that there is no meaning in anything we experience or accomplish. From dust we come; to dust we return. On the surface it appears to be a rather pessimistic view of the world. The feel good factor eludes us as he concludes that the whole duty of man (humanity) is to 'fear God and keep his commandments'. Not what you'd call 'a laugh a minute'.

Unfortunately, by taking the pessimistic view we deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering the keys to unlock the very meaning the teacher appears to despair of. We've been drawn into the dragon's cave, dark and dank, with scattered remains of those who came only to plunder his treasure. But hidden amongst the gloom are sparkling gems that provide the keys we are looking for.

It's a year since the disaster in Haiti. Thousands of people lost everything they had. Many escaped with only their lives. What meaning does wealth and fine living have when faced with such suffering. Yet for us life continued as normal. We continue to work for a better life - nicer homes, the latest mod cons, planning holidays and pursuing careers - but are all of these meaningless?

"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best".

Woody Allen

Sex without love may be enjoyable but its empty and meaningless.

"Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you..." says the teacher.

It's only within a loving relationship that sex receives meaning. Only within that context will it find fulfilment.

Life is a blank page. A journey without purpose is a road to nowhere. A gift without someone to receive it remains in its wrapping. The message of Ecclesiastes is not morbid or pessimistic. The teacher tells us to put our lives in context - "It is now that God favours what you do". Don't envy those who have more than you, prettier than you or better than you. Be ambitious, yes - but not for its own sake. Plan for the future but wait for it. Build your life on stuff and it will sink. Build first then put stuff in. If what you do counts for nothing, that's because context is everything.