Sunday, January 27, 2013

What love looks like

The subject of this morning's sermon was "Love". The following picture contrasts the way in which our culture sees love, and how Jesus Christ views it. In many contemporary "love" songs, the love in question is the selfish pursuit of a set of pleasing emotions. However in Jesus' estimation, "greater love has no man than this, than he lays down his life for his friends...". In his life, his teaching and crucially his death, he shows us what real giving love is; while the transformative effect of his gospel on us makes us more loving so we can imitate him.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Food, family, friends, hunger, thirst, sex - and the quote I return to time and time again...

I will never forget the first time I read the following quote, almost two decades ago. I was so struck by it, that I wrote it down and have re-read it many times since. I have subsequently read it to friends, family and whole churches, and not many months ago I read it to a group on a church men's weekend. If you know me, you may have heard me read it somewhere - such has been its influence on my thinking.

It reads:
The effect of sin is to make mankind a slave of the things that were meant to serve him. This is one of the terrible, tragic things about it. According to our Lord, earthly, worldly, things tend to become our god. We serve them; we love them. Our heart is captivated by them; we are at their service. What are they? They are the very things that God in his kindness has given mankind in order that they might be of service to him, an in order that he might enjoy life while he is in this world. All these things which can be so dangerous to our souls because of sin, were given to us by God, and we were meant to enjoy them – food and clothing, family and friends and all such things. These are all but a manifestation of the kindness and graciousness of God. He has given them to us that we might have a happy and enjoyable life in this world; but because of sin, we have become their slaves. We are mastered by appetites. God has given us our appetites; hunger, thirst and sex are God-created. But the moment a man is dominated by them, or is mastered by them, he is a slave to them. What a tragedy; he bows down and worships at the shrine of the things that were meant to be at his service! Things that were meant to minister to him have become his master. What an awful, terrible thing sin is.   
These words were spoken around half a century ago by D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and they continue to exert a profound influence on my thinking even now.

The first thing that arrested my attention were the positives. One of my errors as a young Christian was to imagine that 'discipleship' (that is, following Jesus), must necessarily be unpleasant. If I was basically sinful (I reasoned), then doing good must by default be irksome and tiring. I had not reckoned with the balance of the  New Testament where Paul (for example) rails to Timothy against the false ascetics whose austerity seemed to forbid pleasure. So this quote woke me up, abruptly! The desires I knew for food, friendship, thirst, and sex were not expressions of wickedness in and of themselves; but were actually part of the design. I had adopted a compartmentalised approach in which I sometimes followed God, and at others times enjoyed pleasure; but assumed a tension between the two. Lloyd-Jones demolished this false dichotomy along with all the needless guilt that accompanied it. God, he says, intended us to have a happy and enjoyable life in this world. Monasticism is not the end of sanctification. 

The thing which then grabbed me were the negatives. While insisting that our basic drives are God-given, Lloyd-Jones explained why so much human misery stems from harm caused by the pursuit of these drives for sex, comfort and happiness. In his wise estimation, humanity was created with a nobility which meant that we stood above our drives, and were able to handle them for good; but because of the fall of humanity into sinfulness we have found ourselves beneath them, and subservient to them. In other words, things given freely  to enhance our happiness are, in our alienation, things which we find we must pursue in order to carve out a life of meaning. So legitimate hunger becomes greed, which becomes first obesity and then heart disease. Sex is starved of its love-making and marriage-enhancing power and becomes animal lust, and even within marriage can become an act that demands and hurts, not one which gives and cares. Likewise the natural desire for shelter and clothing and comfort (not wrong!), can degenerate into the squalid idolatry of the love of money, and of the tyranny of incessant accumulation.

These negatives and positives combined, defined an agenda which I have attempted (with varying degrees of success) to pursue. The Christian calling is then neither to deny the basic legitimate drives and needs which come from creation not fall, nor to pursue them at all costs, as if they were the source of happiness and contentment themselves. We are called neither to the monastery nor the brothel. We are not to retreat from the real world as if we were less-than-fully human; neither are we to recklessly pursue the desires we have, for this too is less-than-fully-human. The former denies the pleasures God has for us in the world, the second makes us servants of those addictive desires.

Lloyd-Jones' quote showed me the way in which humanity was created with a sense of dignity, bearing God's image and appointed to 'rule' the earth for Him. It is loaded with the assumption that sin belittles us, makes us smaller, poorer, and more pathetic. We often assume that sin just makes us 'dirty', this is true but Lloyd-Jones goes further and demonstrates that it also humiliates us.

The Christian life must be characterised then, by the legitimate use of these pleasures and joys; but also the exertion of self-discipline and control over them. If I am mastered by the love of money, I must learn instead to love God and to de-throne money. If I am mastered by lust, I am under its power, and it will distort me and prevent me from being a lover and make me merely a user. "What an awful terrible thing sin is" he says. If I extend my need for comfort and shelter into a money-making, consumable-purchasing quest for happiness; money has become my god and I care nothing for the poor of the earth. To say that these outcomes are below the intended created dignity of humanity, is to understate the case a hundredfold.

What hope is there for people people like me (and probably you), who find ourselves under sin's mastery? When we know that our agenda for today is driven by the love of money, reputation, lust, or greed and we understand the folly of it, where can we turn? 

The Bible insists that because God is love , the best way to describe how He deals with us is "gracious". The essence of this is that he does not demand that we master these appetites and reconstruct our own dignity in order to gain His approval; quite the opposite in fact. In the Lloyd-Jones quote he describes sin as being like slavery, like being 'mastered'. This means that we are in fact, quite unable to tame our animal lusts, or insatiable desires by ourselves even when we see the harm they are doing to those around us. As such we are not able to elevate ourselves to a position where we can completely restore our lost dignity or demand his approval. Instead God, through His Son Jesus Christ, offers us something truly astonishing. He offers us complete forgiveness for all that is past; and gives us back our lost dignity by sharing with us the inexhaustable dignity of Jesus. In so doing, the human soul is offered the staggering prospect of being satisfied and complete and whole; in knowing, worshipping and feasting on God himself. Such a person will find him or herself increasingly liberated from the agenda of sin, and re-established as master of their own desires. It is when this happens that family, friends, hunger, thirst, sex can be used as parts of our other-centred service in this world, and contribution to human happiness.

In the ancient world a slave could be released or more accurately "redeemed" if a ransom price could be agreed. The Bible insists that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was exactly the required price to liberate us from the slavery that Lloyd-Jones describes above, and which so profoundly describes me. So here is my agenda for the day: I will not deny my place in the world and retreat into an other-worldly asceticism which is sheer ingratitude to God. Rather, when I eat my tea tonight I will say grace, thank God for it, and enjoy every last mouthful!  But neither must today consist in the quest for the satisfaction of my appetites at the expense of others. Rather I must pray, be satisfied in God and so liberated to serve others. And this will begin with my family. Where I succeed I will thank God, and where I fail I will be driven back to His graciousness to start again tomorrow.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Notes: If God, Then What? by Andrew Wilson

"If God, Then What?" is a book quite unlike any I have ever read, it is remarkable and really rather good. For a start it has received rave reviews from across the spectrum from Ruth Gledhill in The Times to a few die-hard conservative evangelicals like Wayne Grudem! 

I have read several books which have argued for the reasonableness of Christian belief, proposing an intellectually coherent view of life and faith, countering objections and the like. Some focus on science (like John Lennox' works), other helpfully expose the weaknesses of rival ways of viewing the world (like Tim Keller), other like McDowell present wide-ranging introductory stuff in a straightforwardly didactic style. 

Andrew Wilson takes a completely different approach. He begins by charting his personal path from an unthinking fundamentalism into a questioning and probing faith. While he used to be a "them versus us" confrontationalist who hid from other people with contrary views, he now loves questions, challenges, thinking and people who help him to do all this. Unusually however, the more he has read, and thought and questioned, the more he has become convinced that Christianity presents a credible and coherent view of the world.

The most unusual thing about this book is its style. It is not designed for academic publication, it is not a physics thesis on origins for example. It is witty, quirky, odd and deliberately conversational in style -indeed the book's subtitle is "wondering aloud about truth, origins and redemption", in a few places it is really rather funny. However that is not to say that this is apologetics dumbed-down, in fact far from it, for Wilson has done his homework and is grappling helpfully with some very big and important concepts and delving into the main points raised by writers as diverse as Dawkins, Hume, CS Lewis and Alvin Plantinga! 

In a disarmingly friendly style he invites his readers to imagine with him the possibility, the probability in fact of the existence of God. he ranges across the sciences, philosophy, literature and human experience and from this unfolds the reasonableness of the Christian understanding of the world. 

This is an ideal book for anyone who genuinely wants to know what Christians think, why we think it and how on earth we can justify our beliefs in such odd-sounding things as the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is not a hard-nosed lecture, but a gently written invitation to begin to think and maybe begin to imagine the world in a completely different way. It really is a page-turner, which I couldn't put down. I hope it is very widely read - especially by people for whom Christian faith is a strange, unknown or baffling concept.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Book Notes: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller

This is the shortest of all Keller's books by some margin, yet it packs a punch in its 45 closely argued pages. It is thought-provoking and in its central message a helpful little book which deserves to be re-read several times. It is not perhaps that the thoughts in this book are entirely original but I cannot think of finding them as eloquently or concisely expressed as they are here.

Keller begins by suggesting that the modern Western presumption with elevating self-esteem, is not the whole answer to matter of improving human behaviour. In fact, in some cases great harm is caused by those whose self-belief is uncontaminated by the humility towards others which naturally embraces empathy.

In Keller's estimation, many of the difficulties of the human condition are caused by problems of the human ego. The ego he sees as being empty, painful, busy and fragile. Empty, because at the centre of our lives is an emptiness, a hollowness which is made acute by the fact that the human ego is inflated. Painful, because the distended ego is dysfunctional. Have you ever noticed that as you walk around you do not notice your toe unless there is something wrong with it? asks Keller as he points out that our constant concern with our own ego is a sign of a flaw. The ego is busy, he argues, because it drives us to constant activity seeking verification for itself, the accumulation of a CV with which to re-assure itself of its own value (despite the fact that in so doing it drains the inherent value from all the activities it embraces, making them of mere instrumental consequence to the greater good of the ego itself). Finally it is "busy" says Keller. He produces a fascinating quote from Madonna who admits being driven by a deep fear of mediocrity.

What then does Keller propose as a Christian antidote to these problems of the human ego? Readers familiar with Tim Keller's writing will be unsurprised to learn that his proposed solution is the gospel of Christ, seen as the unmerited grace of God being freely given to undeserving humans. Keller shows (using Paul's New Testament example) that this properly understood, believed, accepted and experienced leads to a remarkable freedom. This is freedom not just from what other people think about our value, but also a freedom from what we think about ourselves. Keller argues that a person who has received the love of God in Christ will not be 'puffed up' but will be filled up. 

The way in which the Christian life is worked out in these terms before God means that we can be on one hand certain that we are sinful, flawed and have made many errors, but on the other hand deeply loved and accepted by the one person whose opinion matters: GOD. This should make us neither self-hating nor self-loving, but characterised by what the author calls "gospel-humility". This he sees in the following terms (p32), Gospel humility is not thinking more of myself, or thinking less of myself, by thinking of myself less. Here is the goal that Keller puts before us, of what the gospel of Christ will do to us if we allow its sweet influence to have its way in our souls; not to be become egotists concerned with our levels of self-esteem, but rather to be so secure in the love of God that we declare our self obsession over.

The foundation on which all of this rests is of course the old Biblical idea of salvation by faith. That is to say that we do not enter into a right relationship to God on the basis of our good deeds or adequate performance; but rather that when we entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ he removes our guilt and unites us to himself. As Keller puts it, we have the verdict (loved, accepted, forgiven), prior to our performance. This, when understood is true liberation - as the person who has got this is truly liberated to love God and others.

This is a great little read, full of ideas, and shot through with a full-blooded New Testament spirituality which is satisfying and profound. 

There is a brilliant irony in all of this. I first became aware of this title because Amazon recommended the book to me on the basis of my previous purchases which is fair enough! However, the wording of their advert could not have been more bizarrely inept. "TREAT YOURSELF - to the freedom of self-forgetfulness" screamed the large font size! 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Book Notes: The Good The Bad and The Multiplex by mark Kermode

As readers of this blog know well, I am quite partial to the odd curmudgeonly rant. The film critic Mark Kermode's "The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex" is a particularly enjoyable example of the genre, and a read which entertained me hugely over Christmas.

The book consists of six chapter-rants which are well researched, and acerbically delivered. He begins with the charge that the modern multiplex experience fails to offer the enjoyment which old-style cinemas delivered to their audiences. He rails against ghastly over-priced trash food, awful customer service, noisy ignorant audiences,  shoddy projection, and staff who neither know or care about film. Good criticisms well made.

Next Kermode turns his fire on the phenomenon of the "blockbuster" movie hit, the mutli-million dollar spend-a-lot movies with A-list stars and mega-budget CGI effects. The question he asks is why are they so awful. While these films once they have been recycled through cinema, DVD, download, and TV-repeats, always end up making a profit for years to come; the question Kermode wants to ask this: Given the certainty of a financial return why do studios and writers content themselves with the likes of the lamentable Waterworld, the tedious Titanic, or the banal Dances with Smurfs (sic) er, sorry Avatar; when they could actually make great and poignant films?

3D cinema, according to "The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex" is basically a useless fad that the film companies won't abandon, but will return to repeatedly. The thesis of chapter three is that despite widespread audience dissatisfaction, the film industry needs a gimmick with which to distinguish cinema from the burgeoning 'home cinema' market. This is enhanced by the fact that the complexities of 3D projection make it a useful tool in the studios ongoing war against piracy of their product. This is then re-enforced by the fact that the investment in 3D projection requires a return and so cannot be abandoned as many audiences would like!

"What are film critics for?" Kermode asks. Well he might, because as he laments in his next chapter despite the fact that the reviewers queued up in droves to pan the awful Sex and the City 2 as an utterly unwatchable  ghastly and completely weird film, people still went to see it (I didn't!). Market dominance by fewer and fewer companies, and the power of advertising (coupled with the disastrously low expectations and demands of audiences) makes critical reflection on films seem pointless! Kermode is in full despair mode in this chapter, but the more cross he gets, the more entertaining and sharp he is.

The end part of the book looks at the dominance of Hollywood in various different ways. The myth of the "British Film Industry" is exposed and revealed as but part of an international film industry. However, in the final rant Kermode turns his attention to the subject of foreign film and subtitling. This was probably the most interesting and informative chapter of the book in that this is an area I know little about.While I enjoyed the other chapters and always appreciate someone delivering opinions with which I largely agree with a huge dose of sarcasm and derision, this chapter took me into new areas. Kermode examines the way in which Hollywood has a track record of taking foreign-language films and ruining them with American versions, to overcome the Anglo-American audience reluctance to read subtitles. In his analysis when the films are ripped from their context the stories often make no sense. I was intrigued by his discussion of the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock romance, "The Lake House". I had seen it and loathed it and reviewed it here. What I didn't know was that it was originally a Far Eastern movie which made a lot more sense set in its original language and cultural context. A remarkable and surprising discovery.

The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex is a fast-paced and highly entertaining read. No-one, I suspect would  agree with all the vociferously expressed opinions within it; but anyone who watches films today should give it a read. It certainly should make the reader less happy to passively accept much of the badly presented shoddy fare with which we are so routinely presented.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Clan Line

Merchant Navy Class, Clan Line makes a fine spectacle, accelerating away from Egham.