Sunday 3 November 2013

"Christ The King" - So What?

Very pretty, but so what?
"My name is BlackPhi, and I am a pedant".

Sorry, but I am: I care (too much, probably) about word meanings and accuracy. 'Christ the King' is like 'Cobbler the Shoemaker' or 'Butcher the Purveyor of Meat', or even 'Pope the Catholic'.

'Christ' is a literal Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew 'Messiah' - both mean 'anointed one', ie 'king'. Yes, there is more to being the Christ/Messiah than just being an ordinary king, but not less. That is where the concept starts.

The trigger for this little rant is that in three Sundays time (some) Anglican churches celebrate the feast of 'Christ the King' and I'm supposed to be giving a talk on the subject. It doesn't help that when I look on Google/Bing images for 'Christ the King', I find pages of bland images showing a North European 'Jesus' looking highly pious ... and generally pretty pointless.

It also doesn't help that I'm of a generation that isn't terribly impressed by titles and the toadying and self-importance that goes with them. Kings, queens, presidents, CEOs, unrestrained Prime Ministers ... so what? Corruption, abuse and injustice seem to me to be the inevitable companions of such power structures. The histories of major church organisations back that up all too well. Here's an alternative picture (from an album cover):

The point of remembering that Jesus is 'King of Kings' and 'Lord of Lords' is that it tells us that he has the power to make a difference. He was the one through whom the whole world was made, so when it comes to making a difference to the mess it's in - to remaking it, in part now, more extensively in due course - he knows what he is about.

When Jesus was on the cross between two other convicts, one of them wanted Jesus to use his power as Messiah/King to free them all from their suffering. The other convict accepts the situation and just asks Jesus to remember him. As it turns out, the suffering of both is cut short (crucifixion commonly took days), and the second convict is promised that Jesus will go with him: taking him through the crucifixion to paradise.

It's an odd story when you think about it, but my take is that sometimes (not always: healings do happen) Jesus, rather than keeping us from pain and suffering, walks through it with us, shortening it to what we can bear, and making it transformative: taking what is inherently evil and purposeless and transforming it to an agent of good change and redemption.

Because Jesus is the King: he can do that.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Autumnal Ramblings

Autumn Rain by RayCrystal
It's classic British autumn outside: grey with heavy, but warm(-ish), drizzle; and it's far too long since I posted anything to this blog, so ...

It's not even as if there's been nothing I fancied blogging about. There've been reports about genes and free-will, all sorts of health-related issues in the news, and, of course, reports of various security perverts spying on us "for our own good". As if MI5 and GCHQ are at all trustworthy or even the least bit accountable to anyone, certainly not parliament.

Consider the SpyCatcher affair, when the British government sent its Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, to lie to the Australian courts, to cover up a faction inside MI5 working against Harold Wilson in the 70's, when he was prime minister. Then there's paedophile traitor Geoffrey Prime, whose day job was working at GCHQ, but whose hobby was using surveillance to identify young girls most likely to be home alone so he could attack them (in spite of being positively vetted six times, it wasn't GCHQ or MI5 who finally caught him, but the local police using traditional policing methods). There's a really good article on Adam Curtis's BBC blog about the history of MI5 here. Maybe US readers can reassure me that their NSA is more trustworthy and accountable?

In terms of my own church life, I am in the process of getting re-licensed as a lay reader, at St John's Church here in Caversham. Considering that we used to belong to St Johns several years ago, this seems like a bad idea - like a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. Also, St John's remains the far side of Caversham from me, which is hardly helpful when it comes to local involvement. Nevertheless, I spent lots of time last year visiting local churches and St John's was where the wind of the spirit seemed to be blowing me, so that's where I've ended up.

As a part of the re-licensing process I've been doing some supervised preaching. This is quite challenging as Anglican sermons are VERY short compared to Baptist ones, but also an opportunity to be as creative as I can in presenting truth in a different way. For harvest, last Sunday, I took in Biblical-style flatbread - made that morning - so people got sight and smell and touch and taste, as well as the words.

Meanwhile we have a son who's in his final year at university - so he needs to work on job-hunting - and a daughter who is planning to go to uni next year, so we've been taking her on visits to open days in various parts of the country.

Life goes on, and remains a gift - even in soggy autumn.

Sunday 30 June 2013

Proving God

How can you prove that God exists? As someone who trained as a scientist and works as an engineer, I'd say the easiest way to prove something is to see the difference between when it is supposedly present and when it is absent. Except that the classical Christian understanding of God is that he is not just the creator of the universe, but its sustainer too: the one who keeps everything going. So if God stopped doing what he does, then the universe would end. As tests go that's a bit drastic, especially since we wouldn't be around to see the result.

So one could say that the primary evidence for God's existence is a universe that exists and functions in an orderly and comprehensible way. But that is also the prerequisite (presumably) for the existence of intelligent creatures who can look at their universe, describe it mathematically,  and wonder about the existence of God. An orderly universe is barely perceived; in many ways it is just background. Telling the difference between a universe created by God and one which just happens to exist and to be friendly to sentient life is tricky.

Maybe we need a bit more information about God, so we can deduce whether the universe reflects his/her/its supposed characteristics. At first sight that should be easy, for the God described in the Christian Bible is one whose primary characteristic is love. If God is love - and light and life and all that sort of thing - then we would expect a universe, and a world, powered by love.

I trained as a physicist, and a physics view on the universe is filled with 'wow' factors: with wonder at the amazing variety and scale of creation; at the way that it manages to be both simple in overview and fascinatingly complex as we look deeper (it is so implausible that we should be able to describe an infinite universe with simple mathematical laws); and at the apparent 'fine-tuning' which means this world in this universe is incredibly well-suited to intelligent human beings, who can look at, wonder at, and measure all the amazing things around us.

However, I am also very interested in biology, in the natural living world. There the dominant driver is death ... death and reproduction specifically. The living world around us is filled with violence and with insidious and cruel parasites. The 'circle of life', of Lion King fame, is all about living things consuming other living things, around and around again. Yet ... there is also great beauty and great wonder in our natural world. It is not a simple, unambiguous place.

As for people: look at the news, and look at what is going on in your community. There are people doing wonderful, heroic, caring things; and there are people comitting appalling acts of selfishness, cruelty and ugliness.

The Bible explains the inconsistency by saying that God originally created the world to be "very good", but that - somehow - it all went wrong, and death came onto the scene.  It tells us that God has a plan to put it all right, through Jesus, and that in due course that plan will be fulfilled. In the meantime "creation groans", we are told, as it waits for "liberation from its bondage to decay", because God is "not wanting anyone to perish". So there is hope, with the Biblical God, that the world will be made right but, in the meantime, the evidence for a God of love remains as ambiguous as the world itself.

There are a number of philosophical arguments which claim to prove God's existence intellectually, you can find a good summary here. As an ex-atheist - indeed, as a 'grubby-fingered engineer' - I find them unconvincing. Others disagree, so they are worth a look.

Which brings us to personal experience. In my self-description above as an ex-atheist, the 'ex' bit is mainly because I had a powerful experience of God's presence. That is not scientific evidence for God's existence - it's not predictable, nor reproducible, nor even objectively measurable - but it is still evidence. Many other people have also experienced God's presence for themselves. Yet there are also many, amongst those who believe in God and who follow Jesus, for whom God's presence is a vague and uncertain thing: not everyone has had an intense experience; I suspect it is a majority who have not.

Yet for many who follow Jesus - or who believe in God in a less-defined way - there is still a definite feeling of something or someone who is with them, especially when life is at its hardest; someone or something who cares for them and is on their side; perhaps some source of hope that things will get better, that present troubles are not the last word, or, failing that, just a 'hand' to cling to when all else fails.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence, if looked at fairly, is the church, the community of Jesus' followers. Don't get me wrong, I am all too aware that there are terrible problems with organised religion, and fallible people get things wrong, and cruel and evil people use churches as a cover for their cruelty and evil. But behind all that, at a grass-roots level, there are large numbers of people giving their time, money and skills to help other people, often people who are neglected and considered worthless by the wider societies we live in.

Non-religious people care for others as well, of course, as do people of non-Christian faiths, but I would argue that the sheer numbers and dedication of people striving to help unrelated people in God's name is, in itself, a miracle and a sign that more is going on in this world than can be explained in material terms alone.

Monday 27 May 2013

There Will Be A Judgement

An accounting for all that a person has and hasn't done. A time, I believe, when each will come face to face with the consequences of their actions, and inaction. Not just in a cerebral, abstract way, but actually feeling the joys and pains they have caused. For terrorists and child-abusers it is hard to see how this could be borne.

Churches often obsess about sexual preferences and social control, bringing the idea of 'sin' into disrepute. Yet there are actions and activities which are clearly evil and for which judgement and an accounting is all too necessary. In recent weeks such actions have been seen in Boston, London and Paris. Less seen are the shadowy figures behind the scenes who fill vulnerable young men with hatred, priming them to cause harm. Seen but often ignored are the media, and the troublemakers, who blame many for the actions of a few, creating a climate of hatred where those who are different live in fear. Evil has consequences and needs to be dealt with.

A distinctively Christian view of judgement emphasises that grace, an opportunity to change, is available to all. We all face the accounting, but we all have the opportunity to turn away from what has been wrong and turn to God, through Jesus, who can make all things right. Jesus once said that we are to be perfect, just as God is perfect. This can be seen as a threat, or an impossible demand, but it can also be seen as a promise. Good will last forever, whilst evil is to be eternally destroyed, and we can become part of the good. Or we can refuse to change and be lost forever, what the Bible calls the 'second death'.

Forgiveness is important but it is taking the opportunity for change which is key to life.

I do think it's important that if God is going to sort out the world, to remake things the way they were supposed to be, then terrorism and abuse, along with the attitudes that lie behind them, have to be dealt with. There is a great deal in this world which is beautiful and good, but there is also much that is ugly and evil. It needs sorting out ... sooner rather than later.

I am told that at one of Caversham's churches yesterday the minister used the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby as an excuse to attack all Muslims: to encourage prejudice, fear and hatred amongst that congregation. There will be a judgement.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Who's A Christian?

I had a long conversation with someone a few weeks ago which got me thinking (the best sort). If being a Christian isn't about going to church (which it isn't), and it's not about believing specific doctrines (ditto), and not even about 'living a good life' (whatever that means), then what does make someone a Christian?

I know a middle-aged guy who runs a church, but I see no evidence to suggest that he is in any meaningful way a Christian. I also know a younger man who hardly ever goes to church, and isn't really sure that he believes in any sort of big, 'up-there' God anyway. If I were a betting man I'd reckon that, come the resurrection, the odds are far better on seeing him on the 'new earth' than the self-importantly religious person.

Maybe that's a part of the answer: being a Christian is less about where you are now, than where you will be when the choices are made and the journey reaches its end. We're none of us where we need to be at present, which tells us that a Christian has to be willing to change, and to grow, and to travel in the right direction. Jesus called himself 'the way': you can wander all over the place but if your net direction is going his way, you are on the Christian journey; you can go straight as a die, but if that's in the opposite direction to Jesus then you are stuffed (technical theological term there). That, surely, is the lesson of Jesus' story about the Pharisee and the tax collector.

What about someone who's never heard of Jesus the Christ, could they be a Christian? Or someone who has been brought up on lies about a harsh, authoritarian Christ who condones abuse and/or wants to send everyone to hell? The Bible tells us that Jesus has opened the way to life - now and forever - and that his people will recognise his voice and follow him. If someone hears Jesus' voice and follows him, whether they know him as 'Jesus of Nazareth' or not, that is the important thing.

So why go to church? Or read the Bible? Or listen to preachers? The Christian way can be a long journey, potentially a life-long one - isn't it better to travel in company? To walk with people who cheerfully help one another, and those along the way? Isn't it more fun and more interesting if you know something about the places you travel through, as well as where you are headed, to have a guidebook and/or a knowledgeable and entertaining guide? Following Jesus isn't meant to be a grind of duties and burdens; it's meant to be life lived to the full: joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, shared and carried together, not alone.

One final thing: I don't think the Christian journey is something I could complete on my own; nor even in company with others. I need more drastic help from time to time, and am sure I will be lost without such aid at journey's end. I don't think I am alone in that.

So, in addition to being willing to change and grow, and to recognising and following (roughly) Jesus' voice along the way, I think there must be a third element to being a Christian: being willing to accept Jesus' help when we need it. I'm not sure anything else is as important as those three things to the Christian life; what do you think?

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Christianity Is ...

Christianity is about following Jesus,
not about believing doctrines and following rules,
certainly not about joining an organisation.

Following Jesus can start from the smallest foundation,
depending on Grace, then setting out
on an unknown journey.

Christians meet together to share that journey,
to share the burdens and celebrate the joys,
supporting and encouraging one another
along the way:

in coffee shops, in homes, in pubs,
sometimes even in church buildings,
always with Jesus.

God is changing the world,
fixing the mess;
we can be part of that,
if we so choose.

Christianity Is.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Do To Others

A few years back UK TV station Channel 4 ran a poll looking for a new set of ten commandments*. Top of the list they came up with was "Treat others as you would have them treat you".

This is, of course, familiar, not from the old ten commandments, but from Jesus' 'Golden Rule', expressed in the NIV translation as "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (another translation, the NASB, has almost the same words as C4 came up with: "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you").

Some sort of principle of 'reciprocity' is common to many belief systems, religious and otherwise, but Jesus' version is actually rather odd, when you think about it. Consider three different variations of 'reciprocity':

 "In everything, do to others what they have previously done to you."
 "In everything, do to others what you expect they would do to you."
"In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you."

The latter, Jesus' version, isn't really reciprocal at all: you're not called to treat others as they actually do treat you, but as you would want them to. The first two could be termed 'enlightened human nature' - really just a development of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" - but the Golden Rule is different.

The challenge of Jesus' version is that it shows grace:  you treat everyone well, not just those whom you feel deserve it, nor just those you feel can reciprocate. The call is to love the haters, be kind to the unkind, and to help people who would happily leave you helpless. The good Samaritan springs to mind.

There is an issue of boundaries when it comes to applying this. Does it mean battered wives should love their husbands, and abused children their abusive parent? Possibly so, although this may be only a long term aspiration for many. But the point of grace is not about being 'nice', nor about pretending things haven't happened.

Grace is active. If my head got so messed up that I was abusing others, would I really just want to be left to get on with it? To repeat the abuse, again and again? Surely not! Surely the gracious thing to do is to stop the behaviour, to get help for abuser and abused, to protect both. Some relationships are simply toxic and separation is best for all; others maybe just need time, space and commitment. There may be few hard and fast rules, but abuse should be challenged, confronted and, if necessary, physically prevented - whether by separation or confinement of the abuser. Consider what you "would have them do to you": in that circumstance and for all involved.

The most immediate application of the Golden Rule for most of us, though, is how we treat people who we don't like, and who don't like us. If we see someone in need, do we first weigh up their race and their creed and how those groupings have treated people like us, or do we simply see someone who needs our help and treat them as we would want to be treated ourselves?

* Channel 4's top ten 'new commandments' were as follows:-
  1. Treat others as you would have them treat you.
  2. Take responsibility for your actions
  3. Do not kill.
  4. Be honest.
  5. Do not steal.
  6. Protect and nurture children.
  7. Protect the environment.
  8. Look after the vulnerable.
  9. Never be violent.
  10. Protect your family.

Thursday 7 March 2013


Resurrection: Rob Bell.

Not long ago I heard a (rather rubbish) preacher claim that the gospel hope is "going to heaven when you die". This is a fairly common viewpoint - you get it in several Victorian hymns - but it does have two big problems: firstly it is not in the Bible; and secondly it makes this world seem like a pointless waiting room, like hanging around at Heathrow for a flight to Madrid whilst Spanish Air Traffic Control is on strike.

In the Bible the gospel hope is, on one level at least, clear enough: it is resurrection (see, for example, 1 Cor 15 and  Acts 23:6). The trickier bit is understanding what resurrection, in this context, is all about.

The Acts quote above looks to be about a general resurrection of the dead 'at the end of the age' - ie after Jesus returns, when God's Kingdom is fully realised in a 'new heaven and a new earth'. Whilst that's more concrete than just 'going to heaven', it's still not obvious what its relevance is to here and now.

The chapter to the Corinthians is different though. That starts from a statement of the gospel that Jesus died and was raised, in the past, and then argues from this that there will be a general resurrection in the future. So the basic gospel message that the Corinthians had already accepted was about Jesus' resurrection, and Paul was teasing out for them the implications of this for their present and future.

An expansion on resurrection as the 'gospel hope' then would start with Jesus' death and resurrection setting us free from anything that is wrong in our past.

Then the resurrection message for here and now is that however bad things may be, God will have the last word. When Jesus died on the cross it looked as though it was all over, but God raised him from the dead and defeat was changed to victory. When we are at our most hopeless, when darkness is all around, then God will act and everything will change in an instant. The resurrection message is that God transforms despair to joy and defeat into victory; we just need to hang in there as best we can.

Finally, resurrection is hope for the future: a double hope in that we hope to be reunited with those who we have loved, but also in that we hope to live in a renewed world where life, justice and love are all around (and within).

Rob Bell, of course, puts all this much better, so I have included a video of his about Resurrection at the top of this post. Enjoy!

Sunday 27 January 2013

Light In The Darkness

Christmas gets knocked sometimes for having its roots in a pagan festival. That is really to miss the point though. The reason for the pagan festival was the winter solstice: the shortest day has passed, the longest nights are behind us. On December 25th this is not obvious, and everyone knows that the coldest weather is ahead, nevertheless from then on the nights get shorter and the days get longer.

This is the metaphor which Christianity takes over - not the paganism, but the hope. The meaning of Jesus' birth, at whatever season it actually occurred, is that God is dealing with the mess which is our world. It is going to take time and there are still hard times to come, but the light is brightening and the darkness is pulling back.

Two thousand years ago the superpower of the day dealt with its enemies by crucifying them: a long and agonising death displayed along the main roads, to discourage the others. As the 21st Century begins we have Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib - pick your own superpower abuse - but now it is hidden and shameful. Things really have changed.

Today, here in Caversham, it's a bright sunny day; still cold, still windy, still wet - not Spring by any means - but a sign that Spring is on its way. There is life, there is hope, every breath is a gift from God. And when it gets dark again, we can always light a candle; not just for ourselves but to place in a window so that others may see a light in their darkness.

Two thousand years on and there's still so much needs doing ... someone has to make a difference, why not us?

(Click the link for YouTube to see the lyrics)