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

recycled bloggage

Da dada da da da daaaah!

Dear bloggists, apologies to any of you who are Ministers within the Eastern Baptist Association as you will have received this from me in an email last week but I am recycling it for bloggists who are either Ministers in the Association but haven’t read it or aren’t and won’t have received it… and maybe it won’t hurt to be reminded of it if you have read it before…

I love the opening bars to Also Sprach Zarathustra, otherwise known as the theme to 2001 A Space Odyssey. It starts with a long ominous tone… on top of which the horn section boldly plays a series of ascending notes that finish with a flurry.

Baaaarr, Baaaarr, Baaaaaaaarr, Baraaarr!

The timpani drums start to sound

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam

The drums seem to herald the repeat of the horns, which finish on a higher note

Baaaarr, Baaaarr, Baaaaaaaarr, Baraaarr!

Back come the timpani

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam

And the horns take us on the same ascending journey, but this time rising to a powerful higher crescendo that then leads into a triumphant fanfare.

Baaaarr, Baaaarr, Baaaaaaaar, Baraaar! Bar, bar bar, bar, bar bar bar, bar bar bar, baaar, baaar, baaaaaar!

Or something like that! Whether or not you know the music my attempt to describe it is rather lacking. It may give you a sense of what is happening but it does not give you the full experience that the music itself gives when you listen to it with the volume turned up to 11!

I think that piece of music should play automatically when we start to read Genesis 1:1-5:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.

Those opening sentences of the Bible are a bit like my attempt to describe Also Sprach Zarathustra. They clearly do not do the cosmic events justice. But they do give us a sense of what was happening. And most of all they tell us that “In the beginning God…” May you know that at the beginning of a new year for you and your church / ministry: in the beginning God. Before all else and above all else, God. Before sermons and Church Meeting agendas and Deacons and plans and time management and joys and sorrows and all that life entails, God.

May all your beginnings begin with God.

Be blessed, be a blessing

co incidental music

Rainbow Into CdTwice this week I have had unusual experiences with music. On Sunday I was asked to speak at a church up the road in Ipswich. I was not leading the service and didn’t know what songs would be selected. I was listening to (and singing along to) a CD of worship songs and was struck by some of the lyrics in the song ‘Over all the earth’ by Brenton Brown:

Over all the earth,
You reign on high,
Every mountain stream,
Every sunset sky.
But my one request,
Lord, my only aim
Is that You’d reign in me again.

Lord, reign in me,
Reign in Your power;
Over all my dreams,
In my darkest hour.
You are the Lord of all I am,
So won’t You reign in me again?

Over every thought,
Over every word,
May my life reflect the beauty of my Lord;
‘Cause You mean more to me
Than any earthly thing,
So won’t You reign in me again?

When I had sung it before I had always thought of ‘my darkest hour’ being like the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ in Psalm 23. And it most definitely can mean that. But a different meaning struck me. Sometimes my ‘darkest hour’ relates to when I am at my darkest – when I am being an appalling free sample of Jesus. At those times I need to hand back sovereignty of my life to him again.

I flicked the CD back to sing along to the track again and cranked up the volume. I then sang my lungs out as I drove along. And then the first ‘coincidence’ occurred. I felt very strongly that God was saying to me that we’d sing it again in the church that morning. And we did! I am still working out quite what that means, but it made me grin when the music group started up with the intro!

Then on Thursday evening I was talking with a friend from the church about grace. Not saying a prayer before a meal, but God’s lavish, astonishing, awesome grace. I felt very strongly that it would bless my friend to listen to U2’s amazing song: Grace. I put it on the CD player, selected the track and sat down. Three notes after the song had started (it has a beautiful harmonic musical intro that lasts over a minute) my friend asked me to stop the song.

I did so, a bit confused.

He told me that earlier in the week he had burnt a CD of his favourite songs to listen to in the car and when he played it there was a track that he did not recognise, had not bought and had not intentionally burnt to the CD. It must have been one of his wife’s songs and somehow he had selected it. It was this song. Grace:

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she’s got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She’s got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

It was a quite astonishing ‘coincidence’ that this song had found its way onto his CD and that I had felt prompted to play it to him!

I’m not claiming that these are massively significant super-spiritual moments or that I am at all super-spiritual (far from it!). But they both felt very special to me when they happened and God blessed me through them. They reminded me that God can speak to us in all sorts of ways if we’re listening for him. Sometimes he underlines it with ‘coincidences’ and sometimes he gets our attention by the way he has brought about the ‘coincidence’ outside our control.

It is axiomatic that the more prayerful I am the more ‘coincidences’ happen.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

work in progress

When I was a little boy I was given lots of toy cars. I loved toy cars. I would lie on my side with a car in my hand, get my face right down low so my eyes were really at ground level, and then spend ages pushing the car around so I could see how realistic it looked. I would line them all up in different orders (colour, size and so on). And when my dad built me a wooden multi-storey car park I was ecstatic. It had a lift that you wound up and down, three levels, ramps between the levels and lots of things you would find on one of the plastic ones you can buy nowadays. I loved it and used it until I wore it out.

I don’t remember all the toy cars I had (although I do remember having a surfeit of tractors – but that’s another story!). But I do remember one in particular. It was a Corgi Whizzwheels Tour de France Manager’s Car. It was the fastest car I had and I thought it was brilliant. I took it to school with me one day because I was proud of it and during lunch time my friends and I took turns in whizzing it across the playground. It had never had such an open space on which to be whizzed and it shot across the playground at record speed. But every so often it would hit a stone or a wall and crash. By the end of the lunch hour its lovely bright red paintwork was badly scuffed, the plastic windows were broken, there were dents in the bodywork and the wheels looked worn out. What I had once cherished was badly damaged and although I was sad about it at the time I don’t remember being too upset. But the car got consigned to the bottom of my car tin and never saw the light of day again – up to the day when it was thrown out because it was so badly damaged.

Somehow I never forgot that car and a year or so ago I remembered it and wondered if I might find one on a popular online auction site. So I went online and searched for it. I was delighted when a few hits came up and when I clicked on them I was presented with pristine versions of my beloved car. I then looked at the prices. The minimum price was £100, and if you wanted one ‘mint in box’ you were looking at £200+. I couldn’t believe it. My first thought was regret: “Why didn’t I keep it in its box?” and then sadness: “I can never afford one of those.”

So I didn’t bid on any of them. But one of the things that popular auction website does is remember when you have searched for something and it keeps offering you similar items. A couple of months ago it offered me a scratched, damaged Corgi Whizzwheels Tour de France Manager’s Car. It was not being bid on so I put in a low bid and waited. I watched and waited. I grew anxious and excited as I watched and waited and the time for the auction drew near. I was still the winning bid with a couple of minutes to go.

The tension was quite palpable.

The timer counted down. And then at the last minute someone else outbid me and I lost the car. I was really disappointed. But I resolved to keep checking to see if similar cars turned up. A month ago another one did. I put in a similar bid to the previous time and tried to be relaxed and nonchalant about it. If I didn’t win I was not going to worry.

The timer ticked down but I didn’t check it.

I waited, not daring to look, and when I checked at the end of the auction I had won! I was thrilled. A few days later the car arrived and I held one in my hands again after all those years. It was a special moment. Then I looked at the damage. The paintwork was scratched. The stickers on it were in pieces. The plastic front bumper was scratched and a bit was missing. The wheels had seen better days. And the aerial on the top was missing. This is the car as it arrived. 

I resolved that I would restore it. I took it under my coat to a car spares shop in town and surreptitiously held it up against the cans of car paint to find the best match for the red paintwork. I looked online and found places that sold replacement stickers and new windscreens. And I started the process of restoring it.

I dismantled the car and took it back to its component pieces. I stripped the paint off and re-sprayed the bodywork. I cleaned up the grubby bits of plastic. I bought some plastic filler and re-built the front bumper. I found some chrome paint and repainted the bumper. I even rebuilt the aerial.

I haven’t finished yet. I still have to finish the wheels, repaint the underside, paint the aerial and put the stickers on it. But it is getting there. Soon it will be finished. I will post a picture of the finished car when I do. I hope the car feels cherished.

The reflection today is probably one you’ve already considered. God is far more passionate about us than I am about my little car. He has paid a priceless price for us in Jesus. And he wants to restore us by the work of his Spirit in us – changing us slowly to become what he created us to be. I hope you feel cherished and special. And we should all realised that God hasn’t finished the restoration process for any of us yet, so let’s be patient with one another.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Bearing up

bearing up
bearing up (not me nor my teddy bear, but you get the idea!)

Don’t try to analyse what’s going on in my head – that’s dangerous territory – but this morning I was reminiscing about the teddy bear I had as a child. His name was ‘Teddy’ (I was as original then as I am now). He was given to me when I was born and I had the same teddy bear throughout my childhood.

He even saved my life! See this bloggage for the story

During his active time with me he had several new skins, and some new stuffing, but he was still my bear.

(That reminds me of the roadsweeper who said that he had had the same broom for 50 years. The local news reporter came to interview him for such an amazing feat and asked him how he had managed to keep the same broom for 50 years. The roadsweeper said, “Well it has had 12 new heads and three new handles, but it’s the same broom!”)

We all grow and change. Not just physically (believe it or not but I once had hair on the top of my head!) but emotionally and spiritually too. I am not the same as I was as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult and even as I was last year. God’s Spirit is gradually changing me. But I am the same person. God’s renewal is not like giving us new skin and new stuffing, or new broom heads and broom handles. His renewal is more of a refining, an enhancing, a purifying process in which we are gently being transformed to become more like the people he has created us to be and less like the tarnished, imperfect version that we had become.

I am nowhere near the finished article. Oh no. Definitely not. (Please never put your ministers on pedestals because we will fall off.) I am a work in progress, but hopefully in each of us people can catch a glimpse of God through his Spirit at work in us as they see how he has changed us. It’s another way in which we can be free samples of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.