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

evil is vile but lives

I wonder how you reacted to yesterday’s bloggage (if you read it). Did the title make you think, were your worried, curious or simply dismissive of yet another Nick-gimmick?

dark side and light side
dark side and light side

One of the things that I have pondered since is reason 5, and my answer to it. If believing in God is unfashionable (to say the least) then believing in any sort of devil is really silly. That’s a medieval belief that we have grown out of. Nobody believes in a red man with a pointy tail, horns and (perhaps) a goatee beard.

I don’t. That is a silly caricature that makes it easy for us to dismiss or ignore him. But don’t you sense that evil is around?

I believe that there is more than just God in our world. One of the problems people have with God’s existence in the face of evil and bad stuff happening is that if we have jettisoned any sort of evil malevolent force in the Universe (call him the Devil if it makes it easier for you) then we have nobody else to blame but God when things go wrong in the world. And yet we seem instinctively to know that there is evil in the world as well as good. We know that there is darkness as well as light. Think about films:

Star Wars – the good Jedi against the evil Emperor (light and dark sides of the Force).

James Bond always seems to have a baddy to fight.

Superman has Lex Luthor.

Batman has evil supervillains.

The Autobots fight against the Decepticons (Transformers).

And most horror films have a recognition that there is evil out there: Dracula, Nosferatu, Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Kreuger…

And so on, and so on. Evil usually has a face in the way we experience the world, too:

Osama Bin Laden

Dr Harold Shipman

Islamic State

Pol Pot

Adolf Hitler

Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union

People traffickers, child abusers, abusive partners…

And so on, and so on. There is always a baddie.

And don’t we know it in our own personal experience too:

Sometimes we do things we know will hurt those we love but do them anyway and can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Can’t you almost ‘hear’ yourself being tempted to do what you know is wrong and having to wrestle with it?

Haven’t you regretted something you have done but not known (in the cold light of day) why you did it?

Have you been on the receiving end of someone else’s evil?

And so on, and so on. We all experience evil.

We seem instinctively to divide the world into good and bad (and we usually want to believe that we are on the side of the good). So why is it so hard for us to accept that there is an evil malevolent force in the world that is responsible for so much of the suffering and pain and death and destruction that we see every day in the news that causes us to cry out “Why?”? Why have we done away with the Devil?

I think it goes back to the halloween-esque caricature of the red man with a pointy tail, horns and (perhaps) a goatee beard. That has reduced evil to something akin to a pantomime villain and has diminished its significance because we can write it out of our experience as simply being a cartoon villain like Dick Dastardly.

And because we don’t want to give ‘him’ any credit or undue attention Christians have tended not to talk much about him: we depersonalise things and talk about ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ and ‘temptation’ because that sounds more plausible and have a quick tilt at a windmill* during Halloween.

I really don’t believe in a red man with a pointy tail, horns and (perhaps) a goatee beard. But I do believe in evil. And I do believe that it is a malevolent force in our world – you can call it the Devil if you like – that is destructive and distracts us away from God by hiding in the shadows and making us blame the Creator when things go wrong. Evil is alive and well.

So I think we need to bring back the Devil. Not to celebrate him in any shape or form, but to recognise that evil is real and malevolent and hideous and cruel and vindictive and disgusting and despicable and, and, and… you can fill in many other words.

And we need help in the face of that evil because we can’t help ourselves. We are part of the problem.

Lent is not primarily a period of fasting and giving up luxuries in the same way we make New Year’s Resolutions – it is a period leading up to Easter when we realise that we need to take evil seriously and recognise that God did and does and has dealt the mortal blow so that we are now in the final act with the death throes of evil.

If evil worries you, then look to Good. If you are frightened by what lies in the shadows, look to the Light.

Be blessed, be a blessing

* see this Wikipedia page if you don’t know about that English idiom

angry with God

There’s been a fair amount of publicity given to Stephen Fry’s impassioned response to the question, “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God, what will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?” The question was posed by Gabriel Byrne in a series on Irish television The Meaning of Life.

Stephen Fry’s response (as an atheist) was passionate and profound: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”

fistThere have been a lot of responses to this. How do you respond? Do you object to his language to describe God? Do you wonder what gives him the right to sit in judgment on God? I have a degree of sympathy with him, if I am honest.

Once again I sense the gathering of cyberstones ready to pound me into submission so before you lob them at me, let me explain.

I have sympathy because if God is like that then I agree with Stephen Fry. There is dissonance (to put it mildly) with the “and it was good” of creation isn’t there? But I would also want to point out that God is not entirely responsible for the world as it is today. We have a degree of responsibility too. And we also have to accept that in order to give us genuine freedom of choice God has chosen to limit his involvement in this world.

I have sympathy too because we find that view in the Bible. Even today in my reading from 1 Kings 17 we find it. Elijah had been a houseguest of a widow and her son:

17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’

19 ‘Give me your son,’ Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’ 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’

22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’

Doesn’t that make you want to ask God some questions? It certainly got Elijah, one of the great prophets, hot under the collar of his cloak. Look at the words I highlighted in red. The widow was grieving and blamed God’s representative and he in turn took it out on God. I think you could paraphrase it as, “What sort of God are you?”

You might answer that he is “The sort of God who cares about widows.” But he doesn’t always, does he?

I think he is the sort of God who hears and feels the pain of the innocent who suffer. He is the sort of God whose values of love and justice are affronted by hatred, suffering and injustice. He is the sort of God who has experienced bereavement and shares our anguish. He is a God whose world has been despoiled by evil. There has been a lot written about this – it’s deep and dark – the shadowy side of faith.

And this again is where I have sympathy with Stephen Fry because he correctly identified, “It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.” I imagine God agreeing with him. It is utterly, utterly evil. And that’s the point at which I diverge from Mr Fry. If as an atheist you don’t believe in God then please be consistent and acknowledge that you don’t believe in the malevolence of evil. If you don’t believe in God because of the existence of evil perhaps you should not believe in evil either. Isn’t saying you believe in one but not the other because of the existence of the former like saying that because darkness exists you don’t believe in light?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I’m just saying…

iStock_000008457626MediumI am not someone who sees demons lurking around every corner and considers that everything that goes wrong is the result of the devil having a go at me. I think that sometimes in this world we have to acknowledge that the bumper sticker was right: s**t happens.

But just occasionally when stuff goes wrong I have paused and wondered about the timing. I was speaking at a youth camp a long time ago (when I had hair – yes that long ago!). On the evening where I was particularly asking the young people to consider their relationship with Jesus and whether any of them wanted to make a commitment I had planned for us to sing a song after the talk during which the young people could consider their response. I switched on the overhead projector (remember them?) and the bulb blew. No problem, there was a spare, which I slid into place using the convenient lever at the front of the machine and switched it on. The same thing happened (the projector had been fine all week). I abandoned the plan to sing and carried on. God was gracious and young people came to faith despite the tech failure.

After the session I switched the OHP on again and it worked fine. The timing was, erm, interesting. That’s all I am saying.

This morning I am beginning work on a significant sermon for Sunday. The significance is not because of me, but because of what I (and the other church leaders) feel should be said. I switched my computer on and it chugged into action. Then it ran i n c r e d i b l y   s l o w l y. Then in crashed. I restarted it and it all came back to life, except that the antivirus software would not work and was flashing alarm messages at me. I used the online chat facility with the nice man from the AV company and the problem was resolved.

But it was a time consuming distraction. The timing was, erm, interesting. That’s all I am saying.

Even though s**t happens, and it happens to good people as well as those we might consider deserve it, we should not discount that there is evil at large in the world: not personified by a red character with horns, a pointy tail and a fork; but personified by greed, lust, rage, deceit and other less pleasant characteristics we have. And just occasionally, when God wants to do something significant, stuff happens that makes you think that the opposition is not keen and that it is trying to distract us.

The good news is that there is Good News and that God is more powerful than anything. The Cross of Christ is the moment when evil is doomed to defeat and love wins. We need not fear – even the sting of death has been drawn – and I sometimes think that when stuff ‘happens’ it is a good sign, because (to use a CS Lewis metaphor) Aslan is on the move and the White Witch is getting twitchy!

Be blessed, be a blessing.