a tale of two statues

jesus wept

This statue is ambiguous. It’s a statue of Jesus. Thanks to angalmond’s comment on this bloggage I now know that it represents Jesus weeping and is in St Joseph Old Cathedral in Oklahoma City. It is opposite the Oklahoma City National Memorial and is a response to the bomb that killed and injured hundreds of people in 1995.

But to me it also looks like Jesus is doing a face-plant of incredulity. Both seem to be fair responses to my flawed attempts at being a follower of his. The Bible makes it clear that our actions affect God: we can cause him to experience sorrow.

I believe that when I get things wrong it doesn’t just affect me and those I love, it also creates a fracture in my relationship with God. It causes God distress. Jesus weeps because of it. I believe that there are times too when Jesus must do a metaphorical (or maybe literal) face-plant with some of the things I get wrong: responding like Homer Simpson: “D’oh!” or Victor Meldrew: “I don’t believe it!” (sorry if these culturally bound references don’t make sense to you).

Now, let’s be serious for a moment because I am not trying to trivialise this and I am sorry if you feel I have. The stuff that we call ‘sin’ is awful and has at its root a selfishness that elevates ourselves, our wants and our ambitions above those of God. It’s a subversive act that is a reversal of the true order of things. Whatever you think about the Garden of Eden narrative with Adam, Eve, a serpent and an apple* at its heart is the heart of the problem for each of us… it’s our story too – we displace God.

If I asked you to name the Ten Commandments I wonder how many you would get…

Adultery, murder, lying, theft… yes they are all in there.

Coveting, honouring parents.. yes there’s something about that too.

Keeping the Sabbath (ie resting once a week) is in there.

and then there are the ones about not making idols, not dishonouring God and having no other Gods.

If you analyse them they are all about putting ‘me’ before others and before God. I have boldified the first person in my explanations below to try to illustrate the point I made earlier:

Adultery is about satisfying my desires rather than honouring my commitments

Murder is saying my life is more important than someone else’s

Lying is based on the assumption that truth is less important than the reason why I lied

I steal because I want something that someone else has

Coveting (envy in action) happens because I am dissatisfied with what I have

Dishonouring parents happens when consider myself more important than them

Not keeping a Sabbath is saying that know better than my Creator about what my body and mind needs

Making idols is an act of rebellion against God to give myself or something else credit that is due to God and saying that in my opinion something or someone is worth more than him

Dishonouring God is more than being disrespectful, it’s a statement that don’t consider his reputation or character to be worth anything and by extension consider that my opinion of him is the one that matters

More often than not the breach of the ‘no other gods’ is because have put myself in that place – am in charge of my life thank you very much: an expression of the ‘I know better than God’ syndrome

So, if the Top Ten can be expressed in this way I reckon all other things that are sins have the same root: the first person singular. Me, myself, I…

Sin causes such sorrow to God because it’s a distortion and subversion of the way things should be – the optimal way in which he created things (and what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have redeemed) which is us in a relationship with him. It’s a denial of the relationship between me and him – the thing that he prizes more than anything else in Creation. And astonishingly we find through Jesus and his teaching that if we seek a ‘You’ relationship with God where we put him first he responds by making it an ‘us’ relationship with him.

So does Jesus weep and face-plant? Maybe not literally (or maybe so) but I can certainly create that response in him. But unlike the statue that represents that effect it doesn’t need to be the end of the story. Although statues remain static and unchanging the Good News is that we have another statue (Christ the Redeemer in Rio di Janeiro) that represents the open arms of God that long to embrace us when we return to him and reminds us of the extent of the love and what he did to restore the relationship that we have sullied. If we recognise that we have caused the first statue he offers to replace it in our relationship with the second one if that is what we want.

jesus

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Yes, I know that it’s not specified as an apple

has God become god?

I am musing about a question that has bounced around in my brain for decades. I am not suggesting that I have just come up with THE answer: I have probably just discovered some more questions. I have decided to do some God-thinking here about it. Apologies if you came to this bloggage hoping for something different.

The perpetual question is: why do Christians (me included) keep on doing wrong things? I should make clear that ‘wrong things’ covers a multitude of sins. Literally. It includes the little things that don’t bother us (such as ‘a little white lie’) through to the things that create a scandal when they become public. And everything in between.

You see if we Christians really put into practice what we say we believe surely we would not fall down flat on our moral faces, would we? If we live in a relationship with GOD (caps intended to convey bigness, majesty, divinity, and all of the rest of the attributes we would give him) and are filled with his Spirit to help us to live in a way that follows Jesus and reflects that relationship then surely we wouldn’t give in to temptation, we wouldn’t get things wrong, we wouldn’t wander from the path, we wouldn’t trip up… or any other euphemistic metaphor you want to use.

inspired“Ah,” I hear some of your say, “but God has given us all free will and that means we can choose how to live and what to do.”

Yes he has. But having free will is as much the freedom to choose to do what is right, albeit with the potential that we will choose to do what is wrong. Why don’t we always choose to do what is right? The reality of free will does not explain why Christians let themselves and God down, it just explains how it is possible.

“OK,” others say, “But add to free will the reality there is evil in the world that tempts us and seeks to distort the way God intended things and mask our experience of God.”

Again, yes. Evil has the capacity to take what is good and use it nefariously. For example, ‘leadership’ is important for human organisation and society to run smoothly. At its best it can empower, encourage and serve the well-being of all. But it can become distorted towards tyranny and even dictatorship if unchecked. The presence of evil in the world explains what is happening behind the scenes when anyone does something ‘wrong’.

But it still doesn’t explain why Christians, who have had an experience / awareness / understanding (limited) of God would give in to unwise short-term pleasures in place of doing what they know would be right. However it’s important to recognise that nobody is perfect and we are all still subject to an inherent bias away from God that we have learned and perfected throughout our life. We won’t always get it right. Read what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in a very honest admission of his struggles (Romans 7 (NIVUK):

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

The internal battle between the old and new, between the bias towards evil and the desire to serve God, between good and evil is clear in this passage. And it’s something that I know all Christians wrestle with. We are all a work in progress. The war has been won but the battles rage on. An eventual awareness of that is what stopped people stoning a woman who’d been dragged before Jesus when caught in the act of adultery: “The one who is without sin should throw the first stone!” was Jesus’ intervention.

Maybe there’s also something biological here (and that can be distorted by evil working on our free will). We humans are organic beings and our complex systems (created to allow us to respond to outside stimuli in appropriate ways) include the capacity to experience pleasure. In his generosity of creation God has made us with the capacity to enjoy. The hormonal surge of pleasure we can experience in positive circumstances can be very powerful and even diminish our capacity to think rationally. It can distort our thinking in the heat of the moment. How often have you heard, “I wasn’t thinking” as a pseudo-defence when someone has been caught out? Is it that the pleasure-urge is so powerful that for Christians it can override our consciousness of God in the pursuit of short-term pleasure? For example, a Christian should know that gossiping about another person is wrong but the pleasure of having an audience (and their reaction to us) and being able to denigrate someone else might take over before they have thought clearly about what they are saying.

There are some things everyone would classify as wrong – murder for example. But while there is a life-sentence for murder there would be an outcry of someone was given a life-sentence for parking on a double-yellow line (it’s a no parking zone for non-Brits who may be reading this). But with God there’s no hierarchy of wrong. If it’s wrong it’s wrong. But maybe because we have a judicial system that gives different sentences for different crimes we have inadvertently allowed ourselves (maybe subconsciously) to categorise things that way for God. Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to become tolerant of some things because we deem them to be less serious offences to him. We allow the occasional lie, the hidden malicious thought, the occasional cruel mockery because the harm is not so great.

And then there’s grace. God’s grace. Christians know deep down that God loves us and if we come to him genuinely seeking forgiveness and restoration he will do that. Every time. Is the knowledge of that aspect of God’s character distorted (by evil?) to cheapen God’s grace? Do we know so much about his grace and forget how much evil is abhorrent to him? As we remind ourselves of the lengths God went to in order to deal with the problem of human rebellion against him because he loves us so much, have we lost sight of how much that human rebellion offends / hurts / injures / scandalises / exasperates God?

Yet when the rubber hits the road I can’t help wondering whether the real problem is that for many Christians God has become god. Is it possible that in a well-meaning attempt to help people understand who God is we have diminished him? Is it possible that emphasising God’s love (which can never be over-emphasised) and approachability in Jesus we have lost some of the awe and wonder? Could it be that the many other things that demand our time and attention become elevated in importance above and beyond the primacy of our relationship with God?

This may all seem rather down-beat and depressing. So let me offer some positives too. I remind myself that with free will comes the freedom to choose good as well as the freedom to choose bad – bad is not inevitable. I remind myself that God has given us his Spirit and that he does prompt us in the right direction (even if we choose to ignore him) – he counterbalances the bias towards evil and can even diminish it over time. I remind myself that love wins in the battle between good and evil. I remind myself that God’s good plan for people is that we enjoy ourselves. I remind myself that God is for LIFE and not just for Sundays and when my relationship with him is a daily, hourly, constant experience I am more likely to choose God’s way. I remind myself that I am not alone – I have family and friends who encourage and support and pray for me (as I do for them).

I remind myself that Jesus taught his followers to pray “deliver us from evil” so praying about it is a good idea to reengage myself with his help. I ask that God will help me become more aware of who he is, how he is, what he is and ever more aware of him.

It helps.

I’m not perfect. I am not sinless. I want to be. But I know that I can’t be without God’s help and that this side of eternity I will always struggle with the allure of evil, as all of us will. But please God help me so that my relationship with you deepens daily and may one of the outcomes of that be that I sin less.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

salty light

A short while ago I wrote a bloggage about taking action against the apparent rise in racist abuse and violence  and I have been reflecting on that since then. You see I think it is really important that we don’t just tut and roll our eyes when we hear about people being threatened, shouted at, trolled or bullied because of the prejudice of a tiny minority of people.

Do read the bloggage linked above because it tells of some brilliant ways in which Christians have been acting to counter the hatred. Here are some more suggestions:

Some people have taken to wearing a safety pin on their clothes as a sign that they are a ‘safe’ person to talk to. That’s a start but I worry that those who have malicious intent could also wear a safety pin and do all those who are possible victims know what the safety pin means?

You can write to your local paper and express support for those who feel oppressed. Get everyone in your church to sign the letter too. Or even better get everyone in your church to write a letter and overwhelm the newspaper so they see it as an issue to address.

You can speak out if someone in your friendship circle speaks in a racist fashion and gently explain why you think what they are saying is wrong.

targetThe advice I have read which makes most sense if you are a witness to racist abuse in public is to go and talk with the person who is being harangued, ignoring the abuser. Don’t argue with the abuser because they are after attention. Instead love the victim. Find out if they are okay, offer to go and have a cup of tea with them (or whatever their beverage), offer to walk with them to a safe place.

If there’s already someone else with the person, go and join them and start to form a crowd. You could invite other passers-by to join you: “Please will you come and stand with us because this person is being racially abused and we want to show them that this is not how most people think?” The advent of mobile phones with video cameras means that it’s also possible (discreetly) to record the abuse and give the video to the police because an offence may well be in progress. And of course you can call the police.

All these things (and others) are prophetic acts – demonstrations that hate is not stronger than love – and free samples of the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke so much about. They are saying that this is not how God want it to be.

It’s horrible that we are living in times where this sort of thing even needs to be articulated. It’s hideous that this ugly troll is raising its loathsome head.

And it’s entirely right that we stand against it. We must.

It’s entirely right that we do things to counter it. We must.

It’s entirely right that we make it clear that focusing on what makes someone different from us is heinous and repugnant. There is far more that we have in common which we can emphasise. We must.

But I want to ask myself why it is that welcoming ‘strangers’ is unusual? Why is it that letting people know that they are accepted and loved is strange and noteworthy? Why is it that some people feel confident enough to shout vile words and engage in acts of violence?

Is it because we (Christians) have not taken Jesus seriously enough? If you just read Matthew 5 (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount) you will see what I mean. We’re supposed to be salt and light in our society. We’re supposed to love everyone, even our ‘enemies’. If we really lived like that I have a hunch that our society would be so much better – well seasoned, better preserved, well lit and well loved!

Be blessed, be a blessing (no really, go on, be a blessing!)

 

 

a tidy desk is a sign of…

It’s been said that “a tidy desk is a sign of a tidy mind”. Or how about, “A tidy desk is a sign of a full desk drawer.”

But Albert Einstein apparently said that, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

paperworkThis week, among other things, I am going to tidy my desk (make of that what you will!). I have narrowed down my options to two viable alternatives based on the above (note ‘tidy’ not ’empty’!):

Alternative the first – scoop up all paperwork, stray documents, empty mugs and items that don’t currently have a home and deposit them in an empty drawer / cupboard.

Alternative the second – look through all of the papers on the desk and either respond, file or discard, take any empty mugs to the kitchen and clean them and find a home for any homeless items.

Both alternatives will result in me having a tidy desk.

Alternative the first is quicker and perhaps even in the short term more satisfying. But it will leave items still to be dealt with (and now more difficult to find / remember) and may result in the growth of new life forms if the mugs remain uncleaned for a long period of time, or at best the coffee dregs at the bottom of the mugs will have welded itself to the mug and be difficult to remove.

Alternative the second may take a bit more effort. It may take a bit more time. But at the end the tidy desk will not simply be a space free of clutter it will also be a reminder to me that I have dealt with everything.

How often in life do we deal with problems, difficulties, letting other people down, unforgiveness and other ‘clutter’ by scooping it up and lobbing it in an empty drawer or cupboard? We can give the impression that everything is fine and lovely but those things remain undealt with. They will not go away if we ignore them and indeed they can get worse so that we have a bigger issue to deal with when we finally have to deal with them.

It’s wise to try to sort out problems in our relationships with others and with God sooner rather than later. Occasional ‘spring cleans’ will take a lot longer and be harder work for us that regular ‘housekeeping’ and a relationship is always healthier and closer if there is not ‘stuff’ between you.

If you read Psalm 32 you will read about the difference it makes to us when we hide the stuff we really need to deal with and the contrast with how it feels when we have sought forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

of smoking, stinking, shaking and spiders

smokeWe had a bit of a mishap yesterday.

(By way of an aside, doesn’t mishap look like it is spelt wrongly? It looks like mi-shap not mis-hap. But I digress. Come to think of it, digress looks more like dig-ress than di-gress…)

Anyhoo, back to the mishap (still looks like it’s spelt incorrectly). A saucepan of water in which we were boiling potatoes accidentally boiled dry and created quite a lot of acrid smoke. The smoke detectors detected it and screamed as loud as they could about it, but the smoke still got everywhere before we could react. And the smell is lingering. It seems to have worked its way into everything.

So I have discovered a lot about odour elimination from t’internet. They seem to come down to two different approaches. One is to replace the smell with a more pleasant one and the other is to seek to absorb the odour. Masking the odour is only a short term solution. Once the pleasant-smelling mask has wafted away the unpleasant odour will still be there. It seems that there is no short cut solution – I have had to do a lot of shaking and vacking (not singing the song) to put an odour absorber into the carpet before sucking it and the powder into the push and vac (aka vacuum cleaner). I have sprayed odour absorbing spray on the curtains and cleaned surfaces with appropriate odour reducing cleaner. I have also lit candles that have a pleasant fragrance which overcomes the stinky smoky smell. I have discovered (thankfully in time) that there is a significant difference between ‘white vinegar’ and ‘distilled (malt) vinegar’. And I hope that soon the smoky smell will have vanished.

As I was shaking and vacking (still not singing the song) I got to reflecting on how this is almost a parable for how we treat the things in our life that are spiritually unhealthy (aka ‘sin’). Sometimes we might try to mask them by covering our tracks and hoping nobody finds out. Sometimes we might even try to overcome the stench with pleasant-smelling good deeds. But the problem will still be there.

The stink of sin has to be absorbed and we have to be deep cleaned and there’s only one way of sorting that out – which is where Jesus enters the story naked and crying (before being wrapped in blankets and laid in a cattle feeding trough) and heads towards the moment where he is naked and crying out in abandonment as he is brutally executed on our behalf.

But that does not mean that we can sit back and do nothing. We have to seek that deep cleansing, and if we are sensible will seek the help of God’s Spirit to enable us to change our habits and attitudes so that we are less prone to giving in to temptation. We will also need to be involved in some cleaning up of our own if our mess has affected others.

So, the parable of the smoke ends. Except that as I was cleaning a wall I noticed that a spider had been busy building a web and it reminded me of an apposite tale with which to conclude:

A lady was a regular attender at the church prayer meeting and each time she would pray a similar prayer including a request that Jesus would “clear out the cobwebs from our lives.” Eventually the Minister could no longer resist and she blurted out, “No Jesus, don’t do it! Just kill the spider!”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the inner Menace

When you are a child all sorts of things are possible. Your imagination is unencumbered by the laws of time and space. You can do things that adults can’t – like running around the garden for hours without feeling out of breath, or spinning around until you are dizzy and then flopping onto the floor and watching the world keep spinning (adults seem to need alcohol to help them with that one). And the worlds of fiction and fact are blended wonderfully. Characters in books, comics, TV shows and films are simply companions in the adventure of each day.

When my physical appearance matched my childish nature (as opposed to now when the appearance has grown up) there was one wonderful occasion that illustrates this. I loved reading the Beano. I wanted to join the Dennis the Menace fan club but was not allowed. Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx were heroes of mine. It’s not that I was naughty (well not very) because I was vicariously a Menace through them. And I did know that they always got caught and told off…

Our family was preparing to go on holiday. The car was packed, our grandparents had arrived to stay in our house while we were away, and my sister and I had gathered our bits and pieces that were designed to keep us occupied during the journey. We decided that we needed to go and say goodbye to the goldfish in the pond in our garden before we left so my sister and I went off to have a look.

It was a small but deep pond, quite murky and full of pond slime. The fish were good at hiding. My sister bent down to look for the fish and I was stood behind her. In my imagination I think I had just entered the world of Dennis the Menace. In front of me was a prime target – someone bending over. I said to my sister, “I’ll push you in!”

“Don’t you dare!” was her instant reply. I don’t think she thought I would.

But I had now been dared (in my mind). So I did.

And for one brief, wonderful moment I shared the elation of being a Menace. I had pushed my sister into the pond!

And then…

The Beauty Of Pond Slime.And then the green slime monster emerged from the pond – soaked from head to toe and covered in what was at the bottom of the pond. The monster screeched a word that sent shivers down my spine and shocked me back into reality: “MUUUUM!”

Now if I had really been Dennis the Menace I would have made a run for it. I would have got on my go kart and zoomed off down the hill (but we lived at the bottom of a hill) or I would have run off and hidden somewhere in the garden until it had all blown over.

But I didn’t move. I was horrified at the sight of my sister covered in pond gunk. I was rooted to the spot by the realisation that I was in deeeeep trouble (deeper than the pond).

My parents came rushing up to see what had happened and I stood waiting for my punishment…

[punishment happened – this is a family bloggage so I won’t go into details!]

After my sister had been calmed down and hosed down (or at least washed) the remainder of the family went with her back to the pond to count the goldfish and check that she had not swallowed one. She had probably swallowed a lot of pond water and perhaps green slime too, but thankfully all of the fish were still in the pond, probably a bit traumatised by the unexpected visitation by my sister. I was still in disgrace so was in my room in isolation at this moment (perhaps they didn’t trust me as they bent down to check the fish).

I know that I knew that Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx never got away with it. I know that I knew that I would be in trouble when I pushed my sister in the pond. I know that I knew that it was wrong. But the inner Menace took over. [Shove]

I think that all of us have to cope with the promptings of the inner Menace. It may not be pushing sisters in fishponds, but we all get those urges to do something we know is wrong, and from time to time we give in, even though we know it is wrong and even though we know the consequences won’t be good.

Even the apostle Paul struggled with this (Romans 7.15ff):

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul wrestled with his inner Menace too. But the good news is that we are not alone in this. God’s Spirit is with us. His is the little voice we sense saying, “Is that such a good idea?” or “You’ll regret that!” or “Don’t, please.” It’s up to us whether or not we listen to it. When we do, rejoice and thank God. When we don’t, ask for forgiveness and the strength not to give in again.

Be blessed, be a blessing

tickly coughs

2014-04-24 10.11.45I have a tickly cough. The back of my throat gets irritated/tickled and it causes a cough reflex to try to get rid of the sensation. It’s irritating. It’s not debilitating. It’s not desperately uncomfortable. It won’t require a trip to the hospital or even the doctor. And I have some medicine to soothe and get rid of the minor infection, and also some lozenges* to help with the soothing. I am also trying to drink lots.

But it is a persistent tickly cough, it is an irritating tickly cough and it interrupts me when I am speaking, which is a significant part of what I do. (I mean the speaking, not persistent, irritating interrupting.)

What are the tickly coughs in your life? I don’t really mean physical ailments now. I mean those little things in your life that are persistent areas in which you struggle. I mean those irritating temptations you give into and instantly regret. I mean those things that interrupt your relationship with God?

How will you deal with them? I am sorry to say that there is no medicine and there are no lozenges* that can sort this out for you.

But the good news (as that Easter reminds us) is that God has remedies, and he has quite a range!

One is called ‘grace’: undeserved love lavished upon us from heaven.

Another is forgiveness that only needs to be received.

A third is his Spirit within us to nudge, encourage, remind, provoke and to speak words of caution.

A fourth is called ‘church’: people who will walk with us on our journey of life; people in whom we can confide because we know that they know what it’s like because we all have a persistent tickly cough or two; people who (with permission) can ask us the awkward questions and pray for us.

I pray that my tickly cough will go soon. I pray that yours will too.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Isn’t ‘lozenge’ a great word to say out loud? Go on, say it with me now: “Lozenge”. Don’t you feel better for doing that? (Unless you are reading this on the train or in another public place and are getting some strange looks now. :-))