Eyes Off The Waves

It’s already five days into 2017, and I’m still not ready for it.

Christmas was our first Christmas in our new home, and while I was concentrating on that, New Year sort of snuck up on me.

Most years I’ve spent some time in prayer and have some idea about a direction for the New Year, but this year, nothing. When my wife asked me on New Year’s Eve what I wanted from the upcoming year, I thought about all the craziness of 2016 and said “to survive it”.

Surviving is a pretty low bar, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I want more than mere survival.

But as for more precise direction? Not a clue.

The New Year feels a bit like standing at the top of a precipice; political weirdness in both my country of origin and my country of residence make the future a decidedly uncertain and unresolved thing. Hope seems in short supply. All bets are off; anything could happen. Look at the past year.

Maybe that’s the focus. Developing the sort of Divine confidence and expectation of God’s goodness that really does laugh at circumstances.

It would be easy to get disheartened. The less said about current politics, the better, but I have to say that I worry about the anti-reason, anti-fact, anti-truth nature of what appears to be current politics. And it’s conservatives who claim to believe in absolutes like truth I mean at least as much as liberals who claim to believe in relativism.

As someone who places a high value on truth, I find this disturbing. Fact is the least form of truth, and if we can’t even agree on what the facts actually are, then Pandora’s box is standing open and all the demons that have ever troubled Mankind are loosed upon the world.

In that kind of environment, Biblical Hope is a powerful weapon. The confidence that God is still good and hasn’t dropped the ball, regardless of my personal situation.

Like the Apostle Peter, here we are in the unnatural position of standing on the water in the middle of the storm. The winds are howling, the waves mount up like jagged cliff-edges. The other followers of Jesus are back in the limited safety of the boat, afraid of the storm themselves and even more afraid of doing what Peter did. The invitation to fear is everywhere. It’s reasonable to be afraid; that’s what reason tells us to do.

But there’s Jesus, holding onto my hand as I call desperately for salvation. Eyes off the waves, son, back onto Me. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

The One who raises up kings and dethrones them – as messy as that gets when rule is for life and dynasties matter – is still Sovereign of the universe. The One who promised to build His church with no people or empire on earth to provide shelter and support for us – and then did so – is still Lord of all the earth.

These aren’t even very big waves compared to what the early church experienced. The persecution still hasn’t begun in America, despite the occasional rumour to the contrary.

I talked a good line through 2016 about God’s Kingdom being our paramount concern, about how these light and momentary trials reveal how small our view of God is, about how vital it is for us to act like followers of Jesus towards Muslims and other people who do not trust Him for salvation.

Now it’s apparently time to prove it.

I need to keep my eyes off the waves and on the Lord enthroned over the flood. I need to act with kindness and grace even to those believers who I deep down think are bringing the name of my God into disrepute. I need to have a large enough and Biblical enough view of my God that it puts these momentary troubles into proper perspective.

That Thou Art Mindful of Him

The one thing I insisted on in our wedding ceremony that I might do differently now was that I wanted to be pronounced “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife” like the pastor preferred to pronounce.

At the time, I was coming out of a long process of trying to understand my manhood and what it means to be a true man, and I thought it was a significant reflection of that struggle to be pronounced a man.

These days, I wonder if I wasn’t feeding one of the many cultural lies about what it means to be a man. The Man Gets The Girl is a subtle one, because there is something powerfully attractive in a man being a true man, but if that’s what you’re using to define your manhood and masculinity, I’d suggest you may be missing it.

The subject of what makes a man is one I’ve looked at before from time to time, but it’s an important one because our culture doesn’t have good answers. I sometimes wonder whether some of the rise of modern homosexuality may be a reaction to these bad answers about what manhood is all about, but there’s probably more to it than that, and I’m no expert on that subject. I’m relentlessly straight and I find the idea that (for whatever reason it is that people turn out as homosexuals) in a different universe I might not be… disquieting.

Anyway, in this post I want to start to unwrap what it might mean to be a true man in God’s sight. To try to begin to answer the question, using the old King James language, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”

The American culture of my experience (Texas over the last 10 years or so) is far more gender-segregated than I consider normal. For the record, I’m a Brit, specifically an Englishman (they aren’t the same) but I’ve been out of the UK for at least that long, and a decade is long enough for memory to start playing tricks. In Texas, there are very definite “men’s areas” and “women’s areas” of activity and social interaction. Women cook, men grill. Men watch and play sports, women chat and interact over the preparation of meals. Weddings are almost entirely Woman’s Domain, with male input reduced to providing labour and the slightly odd custom of the “groom’s cake” – an excuse to have chocolate cake at a wedding that’s traditionally decorated to showcase the groom’s personality or interests. I found about weddings being designated female territory when I tried to relieve some of my wife’s pre-wedding stress by doing some of the phoning-around inquiries about the flowers. Florist after florist gave me short, abrupt treatment and I was left with the distinct flavour of “I don’t want to talk to you, you interloper!”

My wife calls the same florists – instant helpfulness and charm. Like it wasn’t even the same people.

Utter foolishness, particularly in sales representatives, but this is Texas.

My land of birth doesn’t have a lot of these unmarked zones of gender-based interdiction (not that I remember encountering, anyway) and I was caught totally unprepared.

To this day I consider these unmarked zones to be the adult equivalent of cooties. Hedged about with social opprobrium bordering on shame, they seem to define masculinity and femininity based on arbitrary cultural standards that have little to do with Biblical values.

I’ve learned (the hard way, sometimes) that if we build our lives and our identities on relative human standards and values, we are building on shifting sand. I’m far more interested in what God thinks a Real Man ought to look like than in what the cowboy-derived Texan culture has to say about it.

The “masculinity culture”, if I can use that term, around me places a high value on machismo, separated gender roles, strength and hard work. By “masculinity culture” I mean the cultural expectations that get used to define what being a Real Man is about.

Personally, I think machismo is juvenile, most if not all separated gender roles are arbitrary limits on the breadth of diversity God has created, and hard work is a particularly American cultural value. And strength need not be defined solely, or even mostly, in physical terms. If I hadn’t sorted out my sense of identity as a man before I got married, I’d be in a world of hurt over the issue right now, because there seems little for me in the general Texan expectations.

It’s not just in the secular world, either. In the church, too, we have our ideas about what proper manhood looks and acts like, and even some of those seem like they owe more to the surrounding culture than to the Lord. For example the idea that “women need love, men need respect”. This idea is fine up to a point; men and women do tend to perceive their relational needs differently and respond to different things. But beyond that point it can become a self-serving lie that encourages men to be out-of-touch with their own emotions and desires (men need respect, not love) and disrespectful of their wives (women need love, not respect). Unfortunately I’ve seen it happen.

I may touch on this some more in a follow-up post; for the rest of this one I’d like to return to the issue of machismo.

We all know what machismo looks like, whether it’s opening beer bottles with your teeth or biting into the ghost pepper or flexing in front of the mirror or the trophy buck heads on the wall. It’s swagger. Brag. A constant drive to prove that you’re worthy to be called a man.

And yes, I did use the word “juvenile” earlier.

You see, it looks to me very much as though machismo is based almost entirely on fear: fear of what other people think.

At best, constantly having to prove you’re a man looks insecure. At worst, I’ve lived according to fear of man, and it’s a pretty worthless way to live. It’ll suck dry everything of value and leave you an empty shell full of other people’s expectations. I don’t want any part of it.

To me, one of the signs that you’re a real man – an adult, not a boy in a grown-up’s body – is that you don’t have anything to prove.

Forget trying to prove you’re a man; just be one.

Of course, to do this we have to come to a place of security in our God-ordained identity, not just as a human being but as a man (or a woman, but I’m talking particularly to men here), and not just as a man but as me.

And therein lies the difficulty, which is why so many of us men get stuck in the endless insecure loop of having to prove ourselves over and over again.

The Real Man doesn’t need to swagger and brag. Does an iceberg keep leaping out of the water to show everyone how big it is? A true man goes through life without the swagger of insecure arrogance. Head up and shoulders back, as my wife puts it, not compromising or downgrading who they are either, but strong where it counts: in their character and inner sense of self.

For me, one of the big things has been getting my heart around the idea that God doesn’t think I’m junk. I’ve talked about this before, but being told (as we are so many well-meaning times) that “you may think you’re junk, but God loves you and paid a high price for you” did little to squash my inner conviction that I was junk. Junk that God happened to love and was willing to pay an outrageous price for, but junk nonetheless.

I needed something extra, and it came in the realisation of some of the implications of God’s omniscience. As I said before, the implication that God is all-seeing means that He sees everything as it really is, without camouflage or falsehood or mistake. So if He says I’m worth the price He paid, that is my true value. Jesus loves me, this I know. Do not be afraid.

How can I possibly need to prove anything?

Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.

Evolving Perspectives

I was a creationist in Britain, where it’s hard. Where disbelief in biological evolution is considered the same as disbelief that the earth is a globe. Where with only a few exceptions, Christians tend to say that God created the world but He probably used evolution to do it. Where believing in a literal six-day creation is considered as fundamentalist and unbalanced at the Taliban and Westboro Baptist Church.

In that kind of a milieu, you’d better have good reasons for doubting the prevailing orthodoxy, and be prepared to back them with hard science.

Worse, my degree is in biology. The question was not “how can you call yourself a Christian and believe in evolution?”, but “how can you call yourself a scientist and not believe in evolution?”

However, I consider my creationism to be more or less scientifically-based. There was no conscious decision that I had to accept that the Biblical creation account was historically and literally factual. I simply got to the point where evolutionary theory was asking me to accept so many one-in-a-million chances and improbabilities in the origins of life that it finally just became less improbable to postulate a single act of special creation.

Interestingly enough, one of the main spurs toward this intellectual position was my reading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dawkins, he’s one of my country’s leading biological scientists and one of my country’s leading proponents of atheism. He makes a logical case for evolution underpinning atheism, or rather, undermining faith in God, but his willingness to accept biological millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance in his quest to bolster the idea that God wasn’t needed as an explanation just got to the point where it crossed my threshold of disbelief. This was too much improbability.

I was initially quite a reluctant creationist. As a dinosaur-loving child, I’d somehow absorbed the idea that believing in an act of special creation meant you had to discount all of palaeontology as a lie, that there were no dinosaurs (the fossils were probably put there by God to fool scientists or something), and that the world has always been pretty much like it is today in terms of species range. Creationism wasn’t scientific; it was the product of a mind in retreat; a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately trying to make new gaps. A deliberate step away from knowledge. I didn’t initially want very much to do with it, but I found that evolution wasn’t believable any more.

Then I encountered the Creation Science movement. It’s very fringe in the UK; you almost have to go looking for it. But at least here was a way that I could reconcile my scientific disbelief in evolutionary theory with still being a scientist. There might be some evidence that the long ages required by evolutionary theory need not necessarily have been, or that, as the Intelligent Design scientists maintain, biological and physical systems show the mark of being the work of an organising Intelligence. As a result of finding these guys (in the Creation Science movement), I got quite into it. I even went to a talk given by Ken Ham (an Australian who founded Answers in Genesis and is one of the movement’s leading lights). I’d bend people’s ears about it at the slightest excuse.

Being a vocal creationist in Britain, it’s you, alone, against the world. Even those who share your faith in Christ probably aren’t going to agree with you on this one, but will instead look at you suspiciously as if you’re some sort of lunatic or dangerous fanatic.

So you might think that moving to the United States, where in Christian circles the idea of creationism is practically mainstream, I’d be rejoicing in the company of like minds.

Not so much.

I’m actually uncomfortable with most of US Christian creationism. It often seems way too close to how I initially characterised the idea of creationism – a rejection of science, a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately seeking more gaps. I don’t like this. Really don’t like it.

The “God of the gaps” idea is that “we need God in order to explain those questions science can’t answer”. This, to my mind, is backwards. For me, science isn’t an alternative to belief in God but a result of it. I can do science because the universe is the rational creation of an intelligent Mind, not a chaotic result of random processes. Science is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”; the whole enterprise has theistic underpinnings. Because we believe that the universe is a real, good creation of a rational God, subject to His rules, we can study the world. We can do experiments, because we are studying a real, good creation rather than trespassing on the domain of some malicious little sprite or trying to study something fundamentally illusory. We can make useful observations, because the universe is ordered, not a random product of blind forces. We can do science. It’s a result of Christian worldview.

I don’t believe in a God of the gaps; I believe in a God of science who is a Revealer of mysteries. We can find things out and make discoveries because there is a God, not in spite of there being a God. God’s domain does not shrink with every scientific advance; instead, human knowledge inches closer to God’s perfect Knowledge. All truth is God’s truth, even if it doesn’t look that way at first.

I sympathise with the plight of the Intelligent Design folks, recognising my own journey in theirs. They’ve bravely come to the point where the evidence of some kind of designing Intelligence in the biological and physical world is so strong that they’ve had to doubt the evolutionary orthodoxy that it all happens due to random processes. They, like me, have come to the realisation that a designed universe implies a Designer, through their science, not in rejection of it. And then their theories are apparently hijacked by a load of science-rejecting ideologues (as they see it) and used to justify their rejection of science and what scientists tell them, whether that’s evolution or climate change or anything else.

Maybe I’m being a “creation snob”. Not everyone has a science background or really grasps the biology. Is it really fair to look down on fellow-believers just because they aren’t scientists?

Well, no, it’s not fair. I hope I can cope with the idea that not everyone’s a scientist, but we Christians have no excuse for being rejectors of science either, and I find way too much of that in a lot of US Christianity.

I still find the idea that the omnipotent God whose existence I acknowledge could have created the world in six literal days to require no great stretch of faith or imagination. I still find the level of improbability which is necessarily part and parcel of atheistic evolution to be frankly beyond my personal credulity. But equally, God could have chosen to work through the process of evolution, and the Biblical creation account could be as figurative as the Psalmist’s description of God having feathers, or as symbolic as Daniel’s description of four beasts. It doesn’t affect the Bible’s ultimate credibility to believe that Genesis 1-2 is something other than a historical record, any more than it damages belief in the Bible’s authority to recognise that the Psalms are poetry, not literal history, or that the book of Jeremiah contains both historical-narrative and prophetic genres.

For that matter, which Biblical creation account are we to accept as the literal and factual one? There are at least four (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Job 38 and John 1), and they don’t agree in all of the details. For example, Genesis 1 states that animals were created before people, whereas Genesis 2 reverses that order. If this part of the Bible is to be understood as a literal description of events, how do we reconcile this discrepancy?

For me, it’s still simpler to believe in an act of special creation by an all-powerful God than in the same all-powerful God working through a long-winded process of “natural” selection, but I recognise that God could have done it that way. It’s not a big deal either way.

So I find myself caught in the middle. I can’t make myself really believe in evolution again, but I can’t stand the apparent rejection of science that appears to characterise your average US Christian creationist. Some of these people really do look like flat-earthers or like they believe in a Ptolemaic cosmos with all of its epicycles and the sun going round the earth. As far as I can tell, they think modern science is “atheistic” and they want no truck with atheism. Safer to reject science than faith. The Bible is all we need anyway. Just believe it and close your mind.

I don’t really want to be associated with that. It’s the opposite of the way I came to most of my beliefs, scientific or Christian, and it looks dangerously unthinking. We don’t have the luxury of closing our minds. We have to worship God with them.

Why are we so dogmatic about how we should interpret this passage of the Bible? We none of us were there, as God reminds Job. Making dogmatic statements about things we have not seen seems a little like the hubris we accuse evolutionists of. A little less dogmatism and a little more humility might do us all a world of good.

And as for the Bible being all we need, why do we believe the Bible anyway? We believe it because there is good evidence for its reliability. It’s been proven time and again to be historically credible when it talks about stuff we can hold it to account on, so we are on solid ground when we believe it on more unusual events like miracles. We trust it because we believe it’s true, and there’s good evidence to support the contention that it is. If the Bible is demonstrably unreliable in what it says, we shouldn’t be believing it, so how dare we say that “the Bible is all we need”? We don’t believe things “just” because the Bible says them and we’ve decided to believe the Bible in spite of what our reason and observation tell us, we believe the Bible because we know that when it talks about things we can prove and observe, like historical events and human nature, it has a really good track record of accuracy.

The Bible isn’t, in a very real sense, all we need. We first have to be convinced that the Bible is reliable, and for that we must use the tools of science: reason and observation. Anything else is a blind “believing something you know isn’t true” faith of the sort atheists accuse us of having.

I’m not trying to weaken anyone’s faith. But questions of origins are difficult ones involving epistemology (how can we know anything?), several of the sciences, Bible interpretation and matters of faith. No-one currently living on the earth was there at the time and saw it happen, and we don’t always interpret the book written by the One who was there with perfect accuracy, so we ought to be cautious about making sweeping statements about what really happened. Sometimes it’s ok to not know.

I Want…

How many times have we heard the accusation that Christianity is just an angry God telling me not to do stuff I want to?

It’s sometimes a fair accusation. Sometimes we Christians act as though angry is God’s natural state, and a lot of the time our “standing up for moral principles” involves a lot of telling people not to do things. Combine the two, as we’ve all seen happen, and it’s entirely understandable that someone who doesn’t know any different would come to that conclusion.

And then we come to Luke 11:9-13.

Jesus is teaching on prayer. He’s just taught the disciples what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer”, and told them a parable about a man knocking on his friend’s door late at night asking to borrow some bread.

Even if the friend won’t get up just for friendship’s sake, Jesus tells them, he’ll get up because their friend asked boldly. They exhibited faith that their friend would help them if they asked.

And now Jesus says “Ask, and it shall be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened. For whoever asks, receives, he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened”.

In order to ask, you have to have a desire. You need to want it. Jesus doesn’t say that’s wrong. He doesn’t say stop wanting. Buddhism does, but this is one of the big differences between Christians and Buddhists. From the same problem – people want to do wrong things – two vastly different solutions. Buddhist teaching, as I understand it, is to stop wanting anything. Followers of Jesus trust Him to purify our hearts so that we stop wanting what is evil.

“Whoever asks, receives” is pretty broad. So broad that we often want to try to protect God’s reputation by hedging it about with conditions and nuances. We have to have pure motives. We have to be seeking first His Kingdom. We have to ask according to His will.

It tends to become an exercise in what I call “magical thinking”. Fulfill all of the preconditions and you can manipulate God into giving you a pony.

Jesus pares all of that away, leaving the crux of the matter.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”

God is a good father. He’s not going to give His child something harmful when they ask for something good. He’s not going to give them something harmful if they ask for it directly, any more than I’m going to leave my four-year-old unsupervised around power tools, or give him a cup of WD40 to drink if he asks for one.

We fallen, fallible human beings – human beings who do terrible things and commit all manner of crimes against one another – know how to give good things to our own kids when they ask. And we think that God, the Source of goodness and the One from whom every good and perfect gift comes cannot be trusted to do the same?

When he says no, we can trust Him that what we’re asking for really is power tools in the hands of a four-year-old. We might hurt ourselves and other people with it if He lets us have it.

“If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

Give what now? The Holy Spirit? Well, that’s nice and all, but what I was needing was food. A healing. Wisdom and guidance. Whatever.

Sometimes we act like the gift of the Holy Spirit is a nice extra for church time and the spiritual part of life, but not really what we need.

Wait a minute, though.

We believe and teach that the Holy Spirit is God. So what God is saying He wants to give us is the gift of Himself. Provision? He’s Jehovah Jireh. Healing? He’s The Lord Who Heals You. Wisdom? He’s the only wise God, our Saviour. Cleansing? With Him is forgiveness.

And on a God-sized scale, too. This is the One who created billions of galaxies full of trillions of stars each many thousand times bigger than our own sun. This is the One who fills meadows with hundreds of wild flowers, who created the Paramecium and the Parasaurolophus. Whose greatness – perhaps the least of His divine attributes – no-one can fathom.

He gives royally, because He’s a Royal giver. He gives greatly, because it reflects His greatness. Not with a dropper, but with a downpour. We can trust Him to meet our needs with His abundance.

A Man Under Authority

“I tell you the truth; I have not seen such faith even in Israel!”

An awful lot has been said about this incident between the Roman centurion and the Son of Man. People have interpreted the centurion’s comments about being “a man under authority” in all sorts of ways. Some of them are definitely weird – like claiming that this teaches that the Kingdom of God is a hierarchy like the Roman Army – but others seem to make some sort of sense.

It’s a puzzling statement, though, and I thought we might take a look at it.

The situation is that one of the local Roman occupying troops’ commanders has a servant who is seriously ill.

In a time before antibiotics, the understanding of germ theory or modern medicine, the likelihood was that if you got sick you would probably die. And even if you survived, you might be seriously weakened or blinded or something like that. This isn’t a mild case of a 24-hour stomach bug or something. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the man’s servant was near death.

But the man is a Roman, an oppressor. A member of the army of occupation tasked with keeping the people of God down. If this was the American Revolution, he’d be a commander of the Redcoats. If this was World War 2, he’d be in the Gestapo.

But this man isn’t like your regular run-of-the-mill oppressor. He seems to be what was known as a “God-fearer”; that is, someone who respected and worshipped Israel’s God, but who had not taken the step of getting circumcised as a full Jew.

Some respected members of the local community come to Jesus and ask Him to do something about the situation. Apparently the centurion had heard about Jesus and put them up to it, but whether because he thought they’d stand a better chance of persuading Him, or as a tactful way of approaching someone who might be the Messiah without looking like he was coming to arrest Him, we are not told.

Asking the One who might well be your long-awaited Messiah-King to do something nice for someone in your oppressors’ army is potentially an impolitic thing to do, but the community elders have an answer for that.

“This man deserves to have You do this for him because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue!” He may be a Roman, but he’s demonstrated that he loves our nation and our God as surely as Rahab hiding the spies or Jael taking a tent peg to Sisera. You can do this without compromising Your Messiah-hood.

There may be an element of works mentality here on the part of at least the elders who come to Jesus asking Him to do this. I’ve heard it said that this shows that they thought that it was the man’s works of building the synagogue and loving Israel that made him merit Jesus’ help. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. And in either case, it is evident from what follows that the centurion himself was under no illusions in this regard. All the giving to build the synagogue that the Bible records that he had done was done out of pure love for God, not to try and make God love him. God loves him anyway, whatever he does or doesn’t do. This is what “unmerited favour” means.

Jesus agrees to go to him, but while he’s still some way from the house, the centurion sends a messenger, with the message that has prompted so many thoughts and interpretations.

“Lord, I don’t deserve to have You come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one ‘go’ and he goes. I tell that one ‘come’ and he comes. I tell my servant ‘do this’ and it is done.”

I know I’ve done nothing that should merit Your special favour. I didn’t build the synagogue just to earn points with You. But if You want to do this, just say the word, and I know it will be done.

I know that no mere man has the authority You do to heal diseases and cast out demons. That authority is God’s, and He exercises it in You. And the reason I know this is that my authority isn’t my own, either; it comes from above. That’s the reason I can just issue a command to my men and have them do it. They are being commanded by the Roman Army, not just me. If it was just me in my own self I’d have to stand over them to make sure it was done, but it isn’t. To my men, I embody the Army. It’s the Army issuing the commands. Just say the word, because I know that it’s the same as God saying the word. You embody Him; He acts through You.

It really is an extraordinary demonstration of faith, not just that Jesus could heal at a distance but in Who Jesus is.

Somehow this Roman had stumbled into faith that Jesus is God before even the Twelve had got there. No wonder even Jesus is amazed!

No Strings Attached

For a time before the advent of superhero films, special effects or even aerodynamics, the Ascension must have been truly astonishing.

We’ve all grown up in the era of Superman, Thor, Green Lantern, Iron Man and movie CGI. The idea of Jesus rising bodily into the air is a bit ho-hum. We’ve seen it a thousand times on the big screen. What – not even any bad guys to fight? Yawn. Bo-ring.

Even taken out of the realm of special effects, we’re accustomed to the idea that people can fly. Wilbur and Orville’s accomplishment is old news, so much so that the idea of flying between continents in a thing someone has built is… routine. Before that, theĀ Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloons sent people into the air for the first time. The idea of a jetpack isn’t too far-fetched; just a matter of working out the details. We have, as they say, the technology.

But in 30 AD, that was all far in the future. The idea of humans flying was the province of dreamers and magicians; the only things that flew were birds and bats.

And here is Jesus rising bodily into the air. No jetpack, no broomstick. I got no strings on me.

The point is that Jesus’ Ascension would have been completely outside their experience. No wonder they were left standing around gaping into the sky.

Even for us, I suspect it would be rather less humdrum if we saw it with our own eyes in the harsh light of afternoon rather than on a big screen in a darkened cinema. When it’s your Teacher, your boss, your friend whom you’ve known and hung out with on a daily basis for three-plus years.

Even for One who had cleansed lepers, given sight to the blind and raised the dead, this was new territory. Even for the Risen Christ who either walks through walls or teleports from place to place, this is unprecedented. Different from the post-Resurrection now-you-see-Him, now-you-don’t, it provides a finality and closure to the forty days of Appearings. That phase is over. The Son is going into heaven so that the Spirit can be sent.

There are numerous places I could go with an Ascension Day post: the Great Commission. The promise to be with us. “This same Jesus will return in the same way you saw Him go”. But what I wanted to do here is recapture some of the sense of surprised astonishment that those first disciples must have felt.