Adventus: O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is possibly the only well-known carol that’s specifically for Advent rather than Christmas itself, and its lyrics are particularly significant for my personal Advent season focus of this year.  It is, after all, “O Come Emmanuel“, chronicling in song the hope of God With Us in at least a tithe of all that means.

I thought we might look at the text of it a little bit:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirist by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease;
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That’s seven verses, so there’s quite a lot we could unpack here, and I’m not going to do much more than take a cursory overflight of the highlights, but let’s see what we can find, ok?

The whole thing is a prayer:  O come, God With Us.  The carol is translated out of Latin and is a modified version of the 8th-Century O Antiphons.   It’s written sort-of from the perspective of God’s Covenant people Israel, and has an interestingly Messianic-Jewish flavour for an antique Christian hymn.  Of course, Israel are symbolically standing in for all the Covenant people of God under both the Old Covenant and the New, and one could see it as a bit of an example of the Replacement Theology that was common in the mid-1800s when it was translated into  English, but I’m going to let that stand without comment.  One could equally choose to interpret the flow of the lyrics as exemplifying the theology of ingrafting.

The first verse focuses on what was then the most obvious feature of the state of the Jewish nation: exile.  Until 1945 they didn’t have a homeland.  And this is a good metaphor for our own spiritual state, especially as unregenerate.  We’re in exile, away from our heavenly home, cast out from Eden and the direct experience of the presence of God.  Signs of Him coming among us in all of His grace and majesty are lamentably few: here and there in the world, now and then in time.  A far cry from when we will finally be Home and the whole earth will be full of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  We want, we need, to come Home, to be with God.  O come, God With Us.

The second verse focuses it down onto what is perhaps the root of all problems.  “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”.  The Scriptures and our own experience make it abundantly clear that our problem isn’t simply that we’re exiled from the presence of a holy God, it’s that we’re dominated.  Unregenerate, we’re under the thumb of a tyrant worse than Hammurabi or Pol Pot: the Devil, father and inspirer of despots.  Even two thousand years after the Advent, dictatorships abound and true freedom often seems hard to come by.  Our fallen human nature having shrugged off the easy and light yoke of the Lord, we’re easy marks for the tyranny of the other spiritual power.

Verse three invites the Dayspring, the Source of light and joy, to “come and cheer/Our spirits by Thine Advent here”.  Because life in exile and under the tyranny of the World, the Flesh and the Devil is a pretty miserable existence.  This is also a reminder that the life of the Kingdom brought by the Baby Whose coming we celebrate isn’t some long joyless slog of battle and pain, as we try in our own strength to live lives worthy of the high call of God to which we have been called.  Christ is also the Dayspring, the One Who comes to cheer our spirits.  The one Who “light and life to all He brings”.  His light disperses the gloom and puts even death’s shadow to flight.  As is written:  “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men”.

Verse four addresses the Key of David, the One who opens and no-one can shut, Who shuts and no-one can open.  This is more or less variations on what has gone before, but the language of “make safe the way that leads on high” seems significant.  As someone that works in the dangerous field of heavy construction, I have to know about and be concerned for safety.  It’s a dangerous world out there; even doing things right isn’t safe by most measures.  But Jesus “makes safe” the way that leads on high.  This is not to say we will have a trouble-free path through the world.  The Bible is clear that this is a false hope.  But death cannot snatch us out of His grasp.  Even if this world in all its wickedness may kill us, we’re safe in His arms.

The fifth verse gets us into interesting territory.  We don’t like to think of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge, but He is that too, as well as Baby in the manger and Saviour on the cross.  His gound-level-up refocusing of the Torah’s requirements in the Sermon on the Mount amount to a new and higher law, that of love.  “Cloud and majesty and awe” may have been absent from that occasion, but for all that, the twin commandments that “sum up the Law and the Prophets” – love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself – are more complete and universal than the myriad individual requirements of the Old Covenant.

Not that we’re made righteous by obeying a Law – neither the Old Covenant’s law nor the New Covenant’s twin commandment – but we obey the commandment because we have been made righteous.

The penultimate verse focuses in on one of my favourite subjects: wisdom and knowledge.  It’s appropriate that it comes late in the sequence, after subjects like freedom from Satan’s tyrannyand an end to exile, because those are more fundamental problems for the human condition.  Other religions have ignorance as the base of the human problem: we don’t know what’s right.  If that were the case, a law, given by a prophet of some sort, would indeed be sufficient and we’d all more or less be Muslims.  But both the Bible and experience teach us that that’s not the case.  Knowing what is right, we do not do it, or at least, not very often, and we need a Saviour before we need Wisdom from on high.  But we do also need Wisdom.  It has been defined as “knowledge plus love”, which is as good a definition as most; the ability to discern the best thing to do.  “Order all things far and nigh”, the verse pleads; let Wisdom direct our steps and arrange our lives.  Instead of the chaos of our conflicting desires and counterproductive impulses, let there be a Divine order, a flow, a pattern.  Not a regimentation, necessarily, but a higher structure that allows freedom, in the way that democracy hinges on the rule of law and cannot exist without it.  “To us the path of knowledge show”, as a Guide, but more than that, “cause us in her ways to go.”  The gender here is interesting, because in Proverbs the divine personification of Wisdom is female.  God’s feminine side, as it were.

And so we come to the last verse.  “O come, Desire of nations, bind/In one the hearts of all mankind”.  And now we’re deliberately stepping beyond the Jewish nation to the Gentile world; “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same word in Hebrew.  In our current divided days this verse seems highly significant.  “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/And be Thyself our King of Peace”.  A true peace of divisions subsumed in brotherly love, not an enforced Pax Romana or a papered-over peace based on ignoring the real differences between us.  All I can say to this is “Come, Desire of nations”.

Like any good classic hymn, there’s a huge amount of theological import here, and I find myself this year praying it in earnest.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Complete the work You have started in us!  Bring us on to completion in Yourself, bring about the final consummation of the great work of the salvation of the world!

Maranatha!

Advertisements

Adventus: Down Into Darkness

Something I do every year in the Advent season is to dial in my focus onto a particular aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the incredible act of faith it took to react to Gabriel’s announcement with a simple “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according th what you have said”. The year after my eldest was born I found myself focusing on Joseph and what it must have taken to be a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the shepherds, some years the Magi. Last year it was the inherent contradiction and upside-downness of it all: while the world was focused on the rich and great, Tiberius Caesar, Governor Quirinius, Herod in his palace, the real story is two dirt-poor displaced persons and a baby being laid in an animal feeding trough to get him off the floor. And it’s this, not any humanly-great historical figure, who’s going to change the world.

This year it’s the Incarnation itself.

It’s not the first year I’ve focused on the Incarnation, but I wasn’t blogging the last time that was the case, so I get to talk about it all fresh.

This year, too, at least initially, my focus in a little diiferent to last time.

Last time I focused on the Incarnation it was the idea of Emmanuel, God With Us, the Lord of the Universe become a man like me.

This year it’s the idea of Jesus the Light coming down out of His heaven of light to take up residence in this dark world among all of our chaos and pain. The idea of descent, of coming down from the perfection which was His right into our darkness and mess.

The Incarnation isn’t completely unique to Christianity. Other religions, particularly Hinduism, have their gods taking on flesh and living among men. But what sets Jesus apart is the purpose of His taking on flesh. He’s not cavorting among lesser beings for His own amusement or because He wants something from us; it’s part and parcel of the Divine rescue plan.

If you’re trapped in a burning building with toxic air, having a set of instructions broadcast in to tell you where the fire exit is is all very well, but it’s less helpful than sending in fire fighters. When the air itself turns toxic with lack of oxygen and presence of all manner of chemicals, reason gets bent sideways and you can’t always rely on your thought processes. Neither can humans, unaided, get free from the sin that afflicts us and corrupts our minds so that we can save ourselves. And that’s what makes the Incarnation special: God is coming Himself to rescue us from the spiritual conflagration that we started.

“Down Into Darkness”

As an initial expression of this idea of God coming down into our mess, I built this LEGO model, in which I’ve tried to communicate the concept of the Light coming down into our darkness.

Not all that brilliant as a piece of art, perhaps, but I hope it gets its point across.

The Incarnation means God coming down into our darkness, living among all of the corruption and arrogance and cruelty and greed and indifference of which humans prove themselves capable every time it’s day. Perfect justice coming to live in an inherently unjust world. Grace being born among the graceless. Purity and light shining in the night of impurity.

More, it’s the beginning of the transformation of the world. Now that the Light has come, we don’t have to walk in darkness any more. We can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We don’t have to keep on acting like corruption is inevitable or that arrogant self-centred cruelty is just the way it is.

As Jesus Himself said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden; neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father, Who is in heaven.”

Trusting in Jesus isn’t just finding the fire escape; it’s also a call to action. We’re called to be lights, shining His Light, doing good in a corrupt and sinful world. Good works alone won’t save us, but as Jesus Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, we are called to incarnate His Incarnation, to be His vessels of grace. If we aren’t doing good, are we really incarnating the One who is Good?

At the end of a year which has seemed especially full of chaos and darkness and human mess, the idea of spending some time reflecting on the “true Light that gives life to everyone” coming into our dark mess of a world is a potent one.

Light, stepping down into darkness.

Maranatha.

Repainting the House Divided

Reposted from my LEGO blog “Square Feet”:

What happens when a red astronaut from the LEGO Classic Space faction and a black-clad astronaut from the enemy Blacktron alliance fall in love?

This build went through several iterations as I toyed with the scene. It actually started out as a plain Blacktron base corridor scene, though I neglected to photograph it at that point.
The two astronauts already looked as though they might have been falling for one another, so I went with that and rebuilt one end of the corridor in Classic Space LEGO colours and made the astronaut a red one.

The heart followed, making the point clearer, and then, under the influence of a 13-years-married-and-still-gloriously-in-love relationship I decided to make it a bit more domestic.

I’d already thought about calling it “Across A House Divided” or something similar, and I started thinking, “what if that’s their actual house?”.

Ergo the paint rollers. And the icing on the cake is that she‘s getting ready to paint her half in his colours just as he‘s getting ready to paint his half in her colours. That’s what love is like.

Obviously there’s a message here, in our increasingly divided times. With seemingly everything becoming increasingly politically coloured in lurid reds and blues, maybe LEGO’s old smiley-faced, cooperative, friendly astronauts can teach us a thing or two.

I characterised the Blacktron faction as “enemy”, and that certainly seemed in the late ’80s to be the case, from their predatory, slightly sinister ship names (“Invader”, “Renegade”) to the fact that once the Space Police were introduced it was Blacktron astronauts in the jail cells. But even though they were enemies, the catalogues of the day still showed the two factions cooperating and working together in the vital project of colonising the galaxy.

Maybe our current “enemy” divisions into the Red Camp and the Blue Camp aren’t as terrible and world-ending as some people would like us to think. Most of my in-laws hold vastly different political views to my wife and I, but we’ve just managed to make it through a Thanksgiving without a single political argument. For which I am duly thankful, believe me.

But the point is that love transcends all of that. For all that I disagree with the political narrative most of my inlaws have chosen to accept, they are good people. And I’m not going to accept the contemporary myth that says you have to define yourself and everyone else purely in terms of political affiliations.

So slightly unintentionally I seem to have built that in LEGO bricks. Here’s a situation in which the political colours of their surroundings are unimportant beside the love they have for one another. Black or blue-and-grey, it doesn’t matter as long as we’re together.

This isn’t a blog I usually get political in, but the “message” is an important one right now. Thanksgiving has just come and gone, and Christmas is on its way. Maybe it’s time to step back from the brink of metaphysical total war with the opposing ideology and remember that those who hold it are human beings just like us.

I Am One With The Force

It’s All Saints. Depending on your perspective on saints it’s a commemoration of the lives of great servants of God from the past, or of all the people of God from all time, or something in between.

Rogue One is perhaps not the most obviously All Saints-themed film in the box, but I was rewatching it over the weekend and struck by the martyrological (if that’s even a word) perspective of the film.

Unlike just about any other film the Disney Corporation have ever had a hand in (since Disney bought the rights to Star Wars prior to The Force Awakens coming out), or to be frank, any American movie whatsoever, in Rogue One there isn’t a single major character from among the good guys (ie one with more than a single scene) that is alive at the end of the film. Everyone dies.

And yet the events of the film constitute a victory and a source of hope for the scattered Rebel Alliance.

Staring death in the face and seeing victory. This is sounding like what astonished the pagans so much about the early Church.

The mental connection finished forming in my head as we sang “A Mighty Fortress” at my church on Sunday. Martin Luther’s famous hymn is nearly inevitable in a traditional-type Protestant church on Reformation Sunday, but the hymn doesn’t really theologise much over the sola Scriptura, sola fide basis of what became the Protestant Reformation. Still, it’s the words of the hymn that tie in with what I want to talk about, not the fact that Martin Luther wrote it.

The lyric in question is in the third or fourth verse. I confess it’s not a hymn I’m intimately acquainted with from my growing-up; there are few Lutherans in Britain, my Baptist church didn’t really sing it, and the few times I’ve heard it at all in my home coutry it was with a different translation of the original German lyrics. Anyway, the third or fourth verse. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His Kingdom is forever”.

Rogue One seems to have drunk deeply from that same metaphysical well. Everybody dies, but hope prevails, bigger than any one life or person.

Every character has their part to play in the story of getting the Death Star plans to the Alliance, and only once that part is accomplished can they die.

Lena Erso gets cut down by Director Krennic’s elite Death Troopers, removing the possibility of her being used as a hostage to ensure her husband Galen’s obedience to the Empire, but not before she makes sure that Jyn gets away.

Saw Gerrera, the big black dude with the breather mask raises young Jyn Erso, and he’s the one to which Galen sends the message, by way of the pilot Bodhi Rook. He dies in the Empire’s test attack on Jedha, but only after Jyn Erso has seen her father’s message.

Galen himself dies at the Imperial research station on Eadu, but only after allowing Cassian Andor to redeem his imperiled soul by refraining from assassinating him as per his secret orders. Chirrût Imwe, the awesome blind near-Jedi ninja warrior, has his parts to play, his deeds to do, and only once they are accomplished is he allowed to die, but I want to talk about him more later. Bodhi Rook makes the connection with the besieging Rebel fleet in order to let them know what’s going on at the surface, then, the crucial information passed, he dies. Admiral Raddus has his part masterminding the Rebel attack on Scarif and in particular in disabling the planetary shield by slamming a paralysed Star Destroyer into it so that the transmission can be sent. His ship’s disabled and boarded, and presumably destroyed, but the plans gets out on the Rebel blockade runner Tantive-IV, famous from the opening scenes of A New Hope. Even the brave nameless Rebel soldier fulfils his last and arguably most important duty in passing the copy of the stolen plans into the departing blockade runner before being killed by Darth Vader. Everyone dies, but not until their heroic task is complete.

Not that I want to appear morbid or anything, but this is the same sort of heroic mindset I try to have in my approach to serving Christ. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “I sincerely hope and eagerly expect that whether by life or by death I will glorify God…”

The late ’80s/early ’90s film The Blues Brothers expressed this immortal-until-my-task-is-accomplished setup with the memorable phrase “we’re on a mission from God”.

There’s a lot that’s theologically questionable about that film, but in a sense they did get that much right. We’re on a mission from God for the establishment of His Kingdom in the earth as the waters cover the sea, and in His economy He will not let either the lives or the deaths of His servants go to waste. And just like Chirrût Imwe from Rogue One, both our lives and our deaths have impact and meaning; they are not lost. We are not faceless stormtrooper mooks who can be gunned down in job lots without significance.

Chirrût is probably my favourite character from the whole of Rogue One (with Jyn Erso a close second because I love strong female characters). Mr. “I-am-one-with-the-Force-and-the-Force-is-with-me”, he’s our first in-universe glimpse of a class of people who were presumably quite common in the Old Republic: non-Jedi who nonetheless believe in the Force.

Chirrût Imwe’s approach to the Force is essentially religious, and amazingly for Disney and Hollywood, it’s religious done with respect and even positive approval toward those who are ‘religious’ (ie people of faith) in real life. This is probably the closest equivalence we’ve yet seen in the Star Wars universe for the Force being God in disguise. Chirrût doesn’t use or manipulate the Force; he has faith in it and acts accordingly.

Where Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Darth Vader’s Force is a neutral and impersonal supernatural substance functioning as a sort of wellspring of power to be used for whatever the one doing the manipulating decides, Chirrût’s Force is perceived as almost having a will of its own; it would almost be more accurate to say that the Force uses Chirrût than the other way around.

It’s a deep visual irony that it’s the character who looks most East Asian who has the most Western, Christian theology of the whole Star Wars cycle, but this is what we have here. And the fact that he’s a blind super-ninja is just icing on the cake. He has a leg up on learning the lesson that Luke so struggled with early on: trust not in what is seen, but in what is unseen. Don’t anticipate with your eyes; feel the Force.

Chirrût Imwe has multiple tasks in supporting the main arc of the story, but two of his most important tasks are the two that prove to be his final acts: the switching-on of the data console that let Bodhi Rook make contact with Admiral Raddus’ Rebel fleet, and the redemption of Baze Malbus.

The first of these he accomplishes by walking through a hail of blaster fire to a data console you can’t see, without even another person to get you started in the right direction. Technically I suppose that’s possible if he’s merely using sensitivity to the Force in place of sight, but it looks far more like the Force has a will of its own and wants the Rebels to get the plans.

The film has far too many leaps of probability to make sense any other way; Rogue One constitutes a sort of baptising of the standard Star Wars cosmology and reinterpretation of the universe along more overtly Christian lines.

With this in mind, Chirrût’s mantra of “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” is a statement of faith.

How does Chirrût do the remarkable things he does? Not through any innate power of his own – he’s blind and not very muscly – or personal godliness – in a sort of Star Wars sense of being a Force-user – but through being “one with the Force”, in tune with the senses and abilities and will of the Force itself.

And only flowing out of his oneness with the Force is the Force “with him”, that is, manifestly present with power to aid. The Force is in charge, and Rogue One is a picture of what this sometimes looks like in practice.

This is way more Christian than Yoda. This is faith, more or less. The follower of Jesus’ relationship to her (or his) Lord.

I’m not saying that God is completely focused on His goal to the point that as soon as our part in that is done we’re “Bantha fodder”, as Jabba the Hutt so charmingly put it. I’m saying that there’s a real sense in which it doesn’t very much matter whether we live or die. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also”. All the things of this physical world that we cling to aren’t actually eternal. At the end of the day, only His Kingdom is forever.

The other main task of Chirrût Imwe is the redemption of his disillusioned colleague Baze Malbus, the really awesome black guy with the laser machine gun.

Baze is introduced to us as a former guardian of the Kyber temple, like Chirrût, but one who no longer believes in the Force like Chirrût does. Maybe the apparent victories of the Dark Side did it; maybe it was just the long slow grind of life in the evil galaxy-spanning Empire. Whatever, he maintains his disillusionment right up until Chirrût’s death.

It’s strange for us in the modern Western world to think of a death being “fruitful”, but it’s the right word here. Chirrût Imwe might have gone on and become a leader or soldier in the Rebellion, maybe even helping to shape Luke’s destiny, but maybe it was only by Chirrût losing his life that Baze Malbus’ faith could be restored.

Just like our God, this version of the Force seems to care about its followers. We who are followers of Christ know that death is not the end and that God really is the Lord of the Universe and sovereign over all powers and dominions. Whether this film’s version of the Force could ever be said to love, or to be Love, is not something I would like to speculate on, but Rogue One does seem to give a pretty good picture of how martyrdom works in God’s unfathomable economy. We don’t always get it, down here at ground level. So much of the time death looks like a waste; people taken out before their time, cut short from what might have been. I can’t and won’t pretend that there are easy answers for those of us who remain, nor that it would stop hurting if only we understood it from God’s point of view. But I have faith that there is a purpose beyond my sight. In the paraple universe of Star Wars, however, Chirrût Imwe lives and dies as a martyr, a witness to the power of God in the disguise of the Force. Blind yet able to see more clearly than any, shorn of his purpose as a temple guardian but having more innate sense of true purpose than any three other characters together, dying yet conquering, his faith brightens his world and brings hope to what would otherwise be a dark tale, and ends up bringing hope to the galaxy.

You never know what small deeds of yours will suddenly weigh heavy in the scales and tip the balance of the world. This is part of why we are instructed as believers in Jesus to “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of (that is, according to the authority and character of) the Lord Jesus…”, moment by moment depending on His Holy Spirit.

That’s how I want to live. The martyr’s crown wouldn’t scare me, if that’s what my Lord has ahead of me. I’m not foolish enough to seek it out, mind; I’ve got a family and I’m not looking to die. But I trust my Saviour to know what’s best, and I do hope that I fully trust that whether by life of by death I will glorify Him.

My other blog, the LEGO one, features as my latest post a model of a Roman gladiator under the title “Morituri te Salutant“: “We who are about to die salute you”. I wouldn’t want that as my epitaph, but in a sense it’s how I choose to live. This mortal life in the flesh is nice, but not as important as following Jesus. Let them kill the body if that’s what has to happen. I’m in the Kingdom still, abiding forever. To coin a phrase, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”.

Attitude of Gratitude

Having spent the last couple of weeks at work having to deal with a new hire who seems to have cornered the market on griping and complaining, I feel a strong need to blog on some positive, uplifting topic.

I don’t want to bad-mouth anyone unnecessarily, but honestly, this guy could complain for his country at international competition level.

Thankfulness being the opposite of moaning and complaining, I thought I’d get a head start on Thanksgiving and write something with a theme of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Gratitude isn’t the easiest subject to talk about. It’s a virtue which is almost entirely found in its expression, but actually talking about it isn’t easy. There’s not that much to say.

Linguistically, the word “gratitude” is related to the word “grace”. This makes sense, because gratitude is both an expression of and a response to grace.

Grace itself is a linguistic cognate of our word gratis, meaning free, not to be paid for. Again, this is entirely appropriate. Gratitude is the appropriate response to getting something gratis, and a thankful attitude sets us free from the heaviness of a negative, bitter, complaining spirit.

It was largely the negative, complaining spirit of the Israelites that got them into so much trouble in their wanderings in the wilderness: complaining about not having water, then complaining that the water was bitter, then complaining that there was no food, then complaining about the miraculous honey-flavoured manna that God provided day after day, then complaining that the promised land was full of giants, then finally complaining the lie that the good land of promise wasn’t good at all.

An attitude of complaint focuses on the problem, and on self. This sucks. If only this were different. I don’t like it. I deserve better. Moan moan whine whine.

Gratitude is the opposite because it takes our eyes off of ourselves and how bad we have it and our poor-little-me pity party, and refocuses them on a good God and what He’s done for us. Even on a human level, it’s changing the focus from what’s been done to you to what’s been done for you. There is reason for happiness, and it’s because someone else has done something. I am not the sole architect of my happiness in a hostile world that’s out to get me.

Gratitude is intrinsically other-centred. Gratitude to God is intrinsically theocentric. It’s hard to maintain a self-centred attitude if you are looking for ways to express thankfulness. It requires a mindset that says “God has done something wonderful for me”.

In searching for reasons for gratitude, I begin at the Cross. My Saviour gave His life for me, affirming my value as a child of God created in His image and setting me free from sin and death. He has made me righteous in His sight, rescued me from the power of the evil one and caused His Spirit to dwell within me. Seriously, how cool is that?

I have a wonderful, beautiful wife whom I love dearly and who has the incredible but strange taste to fall deeply in love with me. I have three awesome, clever, powerful kids.

Unlike many in this country I have a job. I have a roof over my head – and I actually own it, too – and food on the table.

I live in a country in which no-one is restricting my freedom or denying me access to government services or throwing stones at my children because of what I believe. I can openly worship the Lord Jesus Christ without fear or sanction.

I’m healthy – again, unlike many in this country. I’m not on medication for diabetes or heart arrhythmia or obesity or anything. I don’t have any chronic health issues.

Truly I have much to be thankful for.

Counting my blessings is only half of thankfulness, though. The other half is the recognition that Someone did this. I didn’t build this life and array of blessings with my own two hands; it was given to me. On my own I can’t even turn one hair of my head black or white, nor more critically can I stop them falling out. God did all this for me. He’s the Author of life generally, but in the specific He’s the Author of my life. He saved me when I couldn’t save myself, gave me the abilities and talents I now use to earn my bread, brought me to Himself and declared my worth by dying for me.

Thankfulness seems almost a small response somehow, but it’s really all that’s required. Life as a follower of Jesus is effectively, to quote the alien toys from Toy Story 2: “You have saved our lives, we are eternally grateful”.

Strangelove 2017

Quit Worrying And Love The Gun?

In my 12 years of living in America, few things have made me feel my foreignness quite so much as the Second Amendment and its surrounding gun culture.

My birth nation the United Kingdom doesn’t have anything like an equivalent of the Second Amendment, and firearms, while not actually outlawed, are far less prevalent in society. Guns are so proportionally few in number, in fact, that most of our police officers are routinely unarmed apart from a (currently nightstick-style) truncheon, as they have been since the founding of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police force in the Victorian era.

It’s something I often use as an example when people here in Texas ask me about the land of my birth. “Is it very different over there?” they ask, and one of the things I’m likely to bring up is “well, carrying a concealed weapon is a crime, and even most of our police don’t have guns”. Some people here in Texas seem not to know what to do with this information. “If the police aren’t armed, who has the guns?” one man asked, apparently expecting me to say “the criminals” or something. He really didn’t know how to handle the idea that guns aren’t endemic and that we wouldn’t generally consider owning firearms a right.

Obviously, I’ve struggled long and hard with that sort of bafflement operating in reverse. The insane rate of gun deaths in America. The Second Amendment itself. The fact that even after the deadliest mass shooting in US history the government is unable to pass even rudimentary commonsense legislation restricting some of the more lethal hardware available, or to close the loophole in the law allowing people to avoid background checks when acquiring a gun through private sale.

It doesn’t take a genius to wonder whether America’s gun violence problems are directly connected to America’s Second Amendment to its Constitution.
If you’re going to tell people they have a right to juggle with chainsaws, you shouldn’t be surprised if hospitals are constantly having to patch up those who are less than expert at it. It does sort of beg the question of
why, though, and I’ve struggled for a long time to come to some sort of understanding of what the purpose and reasoning behind the Second Amendment are.

Various not entirely helpful theories are propounded by gun rights advocates. “The Second guarantees the First” is a common bumper-sticker justification for the Amendment, putting forth the idea that the right of individual citizens to bear arms is what stops the government from infringing on the rights listed in the First Amendment: freedom of conscience, of speech, of movement and of association.

While it’s in some ways an attractive theory, especially given the notoriously suspicious general American attitude to authority and government, to me it falls flat, in part because I am a foreigner. My native country has never felt the need to tell its citizens they have a right to go armed, neither has any other developed nation of which I’m aware. If the right of citizens to bear arms is what holds governments back from tyranny, we ought to see a far higher incidence of tyranny among non-American nations, with them scoring far lower on the international freedom indices used to compare the amount of freedom possessed by citizens across national borders. Whereas in fact some developed nations with extremely restrictive gun laws continually score higher than the United States in political freedoms granted their citizens.

Some people put forth the idea that it’s the knowledge that US citizens own 30% of the world’s guns in just 3% of the world’s population that restrains other countries from attacking. I’m not sure why these people have such a low opinion of what’s generally acknowledged as the world’s most powerful military – certainly the most technological – but apparently we can’t guarantee that the US military could successfully hold off an invasion. This sort of Red Dawn fantasy was a little ridiculous when that film came out during the Cold War, and it doesn’t seem any more sensible to me today in 2017.

It is a little more in line with what my considered reading of the Second Amendment suggests that the framers of the Constitution believed it was for, though.

Of necessity I’ve had to become familiar with the text of the Amendment, such that I can now quote it verbatim: “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed”.

I’ve gone through various interpretations and failures to understand this phrasing, including investigating to find out what on earth a militia is and what it has to do with anything. I don’t want to reprise the whole development of my thought on the matter here, but my understanding of a militia is that it was a type of 17th- and 18th-Century temporary military unit composed of farmboys and hunters and basically anyone who had a weapon and hadn’t been press-ganged already. In Europe, militia were notorious for their general indiscipline, battlefield cowardice and off-field brutality. If you were using militia, it was because you had nothing else

And yet in America, the idea of militia dovetailed with the Founding Fathers’ concept of the citizen-soldier who would take up arms in defence of nation and family and then return once more to their fields to take up the plough.

It certainly seems as though the colonists didn’t want a permanent standing army. I guess their experiences with the sorts of British Redcoats that the French would later nickname “les Goddamns” made them so suspicious of armies that they wanted no truck with any of it. They wanted a militia, not an army. Soldiers with nothing to do only lend themselves to oppression.

In this context the Second Amendment makes perfect sense. If your national defence is resting on militia, it’s a borderline treasonable offence to take away the weapons that make a militia possible.

It does rather make the Second Amendment the obsolete artifact of history that I always suspected it was, though.

Why there’s still a Second Amendment today, when there’s an entire permanent US military on which America spends more money than some countries’ entire GDP, seems like merely the inherent conservatism of Americans and their reverence for and reluctance to re-examine the basic provisions of their Constitution.

The fact that the people have apparently a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to own killing weapons doesn’t necessarily make it a given that a majority of people are going to, though. There are all sorts of quaint, archaic laws on the books, not only in the UK where I grew up but all over the world including America, banning and permitting all manner of improbabilities, but the mere fact that they’re on the books doesn’t mean anyone’s really paying attention to them.

No, to answer this we turn to the other imponderable of American culture: as a gun-owning friend once put it, “Americans, we love our guns”.

It’s taken me even longer to assimilate this truth than it took to come to an understanding of what the Second Amendment thinks it’s for. “We love our guns”.

I could recognise easily enough that it did in fact seem to be the case. One only has to look at the numbers. But it made no sense to me, particularly the staunchly pro-gun stance of many Christians. How could anyone who follows the Prince of Peace want anything to do with promoting the ownership of weapons whose primary purpose is to kill?

Obviously they must be ignorant. Or brainwashed by the gun manufacturers’ NRA mouthpiece. Or just supporting gun rights because it’s a conservative cause and American Christianity has become overwhelmingly identified with the political Right.

I suspect that this may be more than a little unfair. I still struggle with the idea that a genuine Bible-believing Christian might feel justified, in certain circumstances, in taking the life of another person when Christ died for them just like He died for me, but I recognise that I seem to be in a distinct minority holding that view here in America.

The scary thing is that my gun-loving friend was right. Americans really do love their guns, and it’s not necessarily because of stereotypical Yank cultural ignorance or personal bloodyminded stupidity.

I’m coming to the conclusion that gun advocates really don’t see guns in the same way, that the gun has a dramatically different symbolic value to most people in the United States than it does for me.

To me, a gun is a killing weapon, end of story. Gun rights advocates, at least in my experience, like to bring up the fact that the police define a car as a deadly weapon, or that you can kill someone with a length of steel pipe or a hammer, or that the 9/11 terrorists killed so many not with a gun but with an aeroplane. It’s not the gun, they claim, it’s what it’s used for.

Whether this doesn’t imply that US society as a whole is sick and violent is a question I choose to leave open right now, but in my mind there’s a difference between a car, which is intended as a means of transport to get from point A to point B but which occasionally gets abused as a weapon, and a gun, whose entire purpose is to shoot a bullet at a target and to kill what it shoots. There can be reasonable uses of this killing capability, for example hunting to feed one’s family, but at the end of the day a gun is made to do one thing: to kill.

More, guns make it easy to kill. You can kill someone with a knife, but you have to be much closer to them and use a lot more effort. In my thinking the ability to kill with the crook of a finger is a terrible power to wield, one that I wouldn’t trust myself with. To place that power in the hands of the meanest, most prejudiced and violent knuckle-dragging troglodyte seems like inviting horror.

I’m not trying to say that all gun owners are prejudiced knuckle-draggers, but by their nature as instruments of violence, guns would seem to attract the violent and appeal to the base killing instinct. A person who is peaceable and placid by nature would seem to have less inherent interest in acquiring a firearm.

Guns, to me, are by their very nature death-dealing devices of inherent designed potential for violence, and it’s this perspective that’s stymied me for so long in assimilating “we love our guns”. How could any rational, reasonable person possibly love a tool of violence and death?

It’s possible, even likely, that I’m being a little double-minded in this, because I have a thing for swords. Objectively, a sword is at least as much a tool of violence and death, but in my defence it’s not a current tool of violence and death, so that in the modern gunpowder age a sword is more or less a prop, a decoration, an anachronism owned for its symbolic value rather than its cutting-edge (sorry) killing technology.

To me, swords are symbolically associated with knighthood and the Mediaeval code of chivalry, with its virtues of honour, integrity, faith and the protection of the weak. Only a very distant secondarily are they a functional weapon, unlike the gun, which is purely and simply a functional weapon and has absolutely no mystique or positive symbolic value to me at all. Indeed, it almost stands in opposition to the sword as a symbol of the coarser, less spiritual and refined values of the modern age.

Is it possible that other people might imbue the gun with positive symbolic value? That ownership of a gun might for some be less about owning a death-dealing weapon and more about some intangible value like personal liberty or self-reliance?

Well, duh.

Of course other people of other cultures place different significance on things. Though the idea’s usually found in reference to “primitive” cultures, I suspect most cultures actually have certain totem objects imbued with strong symbolic value, like the British Crown Jewels or the American bald eagle.

The situation is complicated in the case of guns because the gun is a currently-employed killing weapon and has all of those associations as well, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that for the people about whom I most wonder at their enthusiasm for firearms ownership, the gun isn’t merely a killing device; it has a symbolic meaning that’s completely outside my ken.

Commentators on the gun issue in America frequently use words and phrases like “freedom”, “independence”, “self-reliance”, “rugged ability to take care of things oneself”. In the past, this might as well have been Martian for all it touched me. Not only do I not associate the gun with any of that, but I don’t even consider some of those to be important. Or even virtues.

Yeah, I’m a foreigner. Did you expect me to be an American with this accent?

Independence isn’t that important to me on a personal level. I’m more into the idea of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation. The “rugged self-reliance” that takes care of business without needing anyone else seems almost psychologically unbalanced and basically futile: macho posturing that more often than not creates a big problem whenever it tries to solve a small one. If guns are symbolic of this, count me basically uninterested.

I guess the gun-rights advocates are right, at least in my personal case. I really don’t share your values. In my case it actually does make me unAmerican, but there seem to be plenty of people in the States that are at least as nonplussed by the apparent love of the gun as I am. The people who, after a horrific mass shooting like Las Vegas, reopen the historically futile debate over firearms with calls for tighter regulation of these intrinsically dangerous weapons. The people who fight against the depressing knowledge that there will be another mass shooting just as bad as this last one if not worse.  The people who advocate for what I’d describe as rational and reasonable legal control.

Because a gun isn’t just a symbol of rugged individualism. It’s a deadly weapon, by its very nature an instrument of violent death. The dichotomy of this dual nature as both weapon and symbol is a pretty good summary of the American gun debate. And “Americans, we love our guns” finally seems to have an answer for why? that makes an ounce of sense.

Americans probably don’t love guns because they are twisted closet-sociopaths who love violence and death, though you could certainly make a case that the USA as a whole is fairly violence-obsessed. It just might be that there are important symbolic values for many Americans connected with owning a gun, and that they love guns because guns represent a value they cherish.

I’m probably never going to personally love guns. Neither they nor their ownership hold positive symbolic value to me, and even the values I’m told are associated with them are mostly not ones I place particular emphasis on. Freedom is good, for instance, but my freedom is necessarily limited by law, morality, courtesy and the common freedoms of everyone else. My self-image and identity aren’t bound up in owning a weapon. At least, not this weapon; I’d still love to get a broadsword. But even there, I’m quite able to live my life without one.

As a Christian, I question whether our self-image and identity ought to be so wrapped up in weapon ownership rather than Christ, but when I can lay down forever my desire to have a sword, then I can frame the identity-marker of gun possession as possible idolatry. I question whether the values expressed in the symbology of the gun are ones we ought to be promoting as Christians, but that’s not quite the same issue.

I don’t think I’ll ever see the Second Amendment as anything more than a historical artifact or ever really share in this great American obsession, but perhaps in finally grasping the value and symbolic aspects of the issue I can better understand that chimerical and seemingly unnatural beast, the Christian gun-rights advocate.  Or even just the gun rights advocate, no matter the rest of their functioning belief system.

All Other Ground

“On Christ the solid rock I stand,” the old hymn says. “All other ground is sinking sand / All other ground is sinking sand”.

This is standard Christian doctrine. No surprises here on that score. Indeed, it’s pretty much common to every belief system that theirs is the only way that’s fully true or correct. Muslims believe the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ are blasphemous assaults on the nature of God. Buddhists believe their Eightfold Path is the only correct way. Hindus are firmly convinced that their pantheistic understanding of the cosmos is the highest understanding of reality. Atheists believe it’s all a fairy tale and that if we had any true understanding we’d embrace the nonexistence of any and every god.

The common accusation that it’s arrogant to claim that we alone have the truth seems a bit moot under the circumstances. We all believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong or mistaken insofar as they disagree with us. We’re all “arrogant” in that sense. Christians are not exempt, but we’re not unique in that either.

I’ve talked quite a lot on this blog about the idea of finding common ground with people of other belief systems. Faiths as conceptually far apart as Christianity and Hinduism share in common at least the basic understanding that the material world is not all there is. A fellow Abrahamic faith like Islam is far closer to Biblical Christianity, even if Muslims hold several major points of doctrine that we believe to be erroneous or untrue.

And yet, “all other ground is sinking sand”.

Am I compromising on the exclusivity of Christ?

We don’t build our faith on the lyrics of hymns (no matter how good they are) but on Scripture, but this is an accurate distillation of the Bible’s teaching on the subject. The Bible really does teach that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and Mediator between holy God and fallen Man.

What that doesn’t mean is that everything anyone else believes is false in totality.

If nothing else, Satan’s too good a liar for that. No lie can hold up if it contradicts observable reality on all points. Even the most blatant, bald-faced lie has to hold enough truth be at least vaguely self-consistent, and when we’re talking about fundamental belief systems encompassing metaphysics and explanations for the observed reality, we must necessarily hold true to that observed reality on some level, even if that’s a claim that observed reality is ultimately illusory.

What the exclusivity of Christ does mean is that ultimately, none of these other belief systems is going to cut it.

Various politically-correct attempts to harmonise the different belief systems or say that they’re all “true for their followers” miss the point that Reality is what it is, and no matter how strongly we believe to the contrary or how true what we believe feels, if what we believe doesn’t line up with that Reality, then it’s actually false.

It’s all very well to make sweeping claims of how all religions are true, but we really do believe some vastly contradictory things as fundamental truths of our different faiths.

Hinduism accepts many gods. The “highest” (by their own thinking) form of Hinduism treats these many gods as fundamentally illusory, mere flawed manifestations of the impersonal cosmic All for limited minds to grasp. Jews and Muslims believe in one God who created the cosmos. Christians believe in one God, but He’s triune. Buddhists treat the question of whether there’s a God or not as basically irrelevant, but more or less piggyback on Hindu worldview the way Christians piggyback on a Jewish worldview.

But ultimately, Reality is what it is, and at most only one of these can match up with it.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, naturally I believe that what I believe is that which matches up with Reality best. I think there’s good evidence for both the existence of the God that the Bible describes and for the truth and accuracy of the Bible itself. I’m not going to open that massive and complex subject here; other people far more intelligent than I have examined all sorts of evidence at length, and the information’s out there if you’re sufficiently interested to track it down. It’s always possible we’re all mistaken in what we believe, I suppose, but as far as I can tell the evidence isn’t pointing that way.

But if the Way of Jesus really is true in the sense of matching up with how the cosmos actually really is, why am I so concerned to find common ground?

Followers of Christ have both a religious duty and a moral obligation to spread the word about what we believe. Not only are we commanded by our faith to do so, but if it’s true, if we’re correct in our belief of the truth of what we believe, lives really are at stake here. You may of course disagree, but if we believe lives are at stake and yet do nothing about it, doesn’t that constitute culpability?

A lot of the time we followers of Jesus certainly don’t act like we really believe that lives are at stake and that people who don’t believe are heading for an eternity cut off from the Source of all good, but that’s what necessarily follows from what we believe about the truth of our message.

But if “all other ground is sinking sand”, why look for truth in what they believe? Isn’t that sort of backwards?

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m faced with someone rudely saying that everything I believe is a falsehood, my instinct is to dismiss everything I’m hearing, argue and get angry. So I find I can’t really blame Muslims or Atheists or anyone else on the receiving end of this from sincere Christians wanting to fulfil their moral obligation to spread the word. No-one likes to be told they’re wrong, totally wrong.

But if we have a moral obligation to spread the good news about Jesus the Messiah, we have a corollary obligation to do so in a way that can be heard and received.

It’s not enough just to talk at people without knowing or caring where they come from or what they believe. What good is that, if people dismiss it out of hand? Especially if they might have actually accepted our message a bit if we’d have gone about our presentation a little differently.

I used to believe that evangelism, sharing the good news about Jesus, was scary and difficult. The Bible says the world’s default position is hostility to God, so I expected opposition, hostility and rejection. That’s scary stuff when you’re a teenager who already has a bit of a rejection complex. But I knew I was supposed to share the good news with everyone, and so every so often I’d guilt myself into doing some sort of “evangelism event”, deliberately going out to find targets for the Gospel.

Of course, it seldom worked very well. I’d end up with a bit of an adrenalin rush from actually going ahead and facing down my fear of rejection, but to this day I’m not sure how much good it actually did. I still hated and feared evangelism.

These days I believe that sharing the Good News is actually easy. Still a bit scary (Satan has a vested interest in making us afraid to tell others where the fire escape is) but actually easy.

Most people don’t want to be talked at by someone wanting to convince them that what they believe is the only truth, but most people are willing to talk about what they believe in. I look for common ground so I have some idea where to start. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet. The Holy Spirit can work with that; so do we. We believe He’s more than that as well, but let’s talk about Jesus’ prophethood and what being a prophet means and whether “prophet” alone encompasses all that Jesus is. Atheists believe the universe is rational and science can explain things. Great! So do we; let’s talk about the shape of the observed universe and whether undifferentiated chaos can organise itself, or whether the universe is moral or random, or whether what we believe determines what evidence we’ll accept, or something.

I’m happy to have a conversation about serious stuff. I always have been. My difficulty with the whole “evangelism” thing has always been that it feels false and disingenuous to start conversations with someone just to talk about what I believe.

What I believe isn’t the issue here. Let’s talk aboit what you believe.

I don’t ultimately believe that what a Muslim believes can go the distance between flawed mankind and perfect Godhead, but if talking with me is their first opportunity to actually talk with a follower of Jesus, it would be criminal to waste that by attacking their beliefs in a way that makes us look like the dangeous infidels they’ve always been told we are.

Whether or not (and in what way) Jesus is the Son of God may be too weighty a topic for a first conversation. Most Muslims I’ve actually talked to interpret that sort of language as us claiming Jesus is the son of God like Hercules was the son of Zeus, so they’re understandably put off by Christians’ apparent insistence on giving a blasphemous title to the one they consider sinless and one of their greatest prophets.

I’m not compromising on the exclusive claims of Christ. All other ground really is sinking sand. But I don’t believe it’s good enough to talk at other people in a way that virtually guarantees that they will misunderstand, either. We’re tasked with being communicators, and true communication requires understanding going both ways.

Because Jesus Christ really is the only Saviour.