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.

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…And A New Earth

One of the last ideas communicated by the book of Revelation is the creation of “new heavens and a new Earth”, free from the corruption of sin and evil. We’re treated to the image of Zion, the celestial New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, the nations streaming to it, the kings of the world bringing their glory into it. No more crying, no death, no mourning. The tree of life bringing forth its fruit in twelvefold season, its leaves employed for healing the nations. No longer any curse.

But what is it actually like?

Human beings are an active and dynamic creation of God, and even in the very beginning before the Fall were given tasks to do. The painful toil of futility and frustration is the curse of the Fall (along with domination and despair in relationships), but work itself is good, and relationships are good. Human beings would get bored without something to do. So what do we do in the eternal Kingdom? If there’s something to do, if there’s work, what work is there and what is it like?

This is where all of our traditional images of heaven and perfection fall down. All that sitting on clouds playing harps, or strolling about a garden doing nothing… It looks sort of boring. Even the massive worship meeting before the Throne day and night seems in our humanness like it would wear a bit thin after a while. What do people in the new heavens and the new earth actually do?

Bear in mind that this is extremely speculative, but I thought I might try to take a look at what might be, in a world without the taint of sin…

~~~

One of the roots of our contemporary issue with the traditional images of paradise restored is that almost invariably they date to a time when work for nearly everyone literally meant exhausting and painful physical labour. When God says to Adam in Genesis 3 that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread”, that was the literal truth. When your life is a choice to work like a slave in the fields or to go hungry, is it any wonder that heaven was depicted as rest and ease?

Our contemporary world’s expression of painful toil is somewhat different. Shorter on the backbreaking physicality of toil, perhaps, but probably longer on futility and frustration. I ask you, is there much that’s more mind-numbingly futile than data entry or tollbooth-manning or parking attendanthood or any of the other yawnsome mental gruntwork jobs we’ve invented?

If work is going to be restored to its pre-Fall grandeur, it’s going to partake of the characteristics of those original tasks: it’s going to be real, significant, worthwhile, connected and engaging.

In other words, it’s going to become art; it’s going to become worship.

The original commission given to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”. They were placed in a beautiful garden as their home, to work it and take care of it, but their mandate was as broad as the whole earth, as challenging and significant as subduing the wild cosmos, and as connected and interpersonal and fun as being fruitful and multiplying, and as intimately in tune with the Lord as walking with Him in the cool of the day.

I’m not certain, but I think one of the important casualties will be the compulsive aspect of work.

No more workaholics, but that’s not really what I’m referring to here. No; what I mean is that no-one will be forced into a job of work, either by other people or by the simple circumstance of needing to earn their daily bread. We’ll be creatures of perfect generosity and without the dark self-centredness that would take advantage of that. It really will be ok. Besides, with the curse of futility and frustration – thorns and thistles when you try to grow grain and grapes – over and done, work will be glorious and significant.

With no sin to pervert hearts and give rise to hostile or criminal behaviour, there will be no need for soldiers or policemen or security guards, when the curse of the Fall is overturned the growing of food will be as simple as reaching out one’s hand to reap the bounty of the new creation, and when the lion lays down with the lamb there will be no need to guard our livestock from predators, but there’s still a lot of human activity and work left open.

There will presumably still be rain and snow and winds and heat, so there will still be a need for houses and other buildings. I’m in luck; my job of construction continues into the New Earth. I’m not going to become unemployed.

But what will vanish is all of the petty tyrannies of “and you’re going to build it this way, because I said so and I’m in charge”, all the untrustworthiness and lack of scruple in cheating and “how much can we get away with?” and sheer blind stupid.

There won’t be any more generic McMansions or buildings so ugly that today they’d win design awards. Every building a work of art, harmonious, well-situated and well-built, with the drains and the plumbing working properly and no stupid petty annoyances like staircases that are just that much too steep or kitchen counters that are too small for all the stuff you want to put on them, or cabinets designed for people 3″ taller than you are.

We’ll build for beauty, but it’ll be a livable beauty maximising function as well as looks. And our public buildings even more so.

With perfected bodies there’s some question over whether we’ll need doctors or medical practitioners. No disease, infirmity or old age will be in a position to affect us, but perhaps there might still be the possibility of accidents? I’m withdrawing judgment on that, but most of the mess of our contemporary pharmaceutical industry with its dubious lists of side-effects and its profiteering from other people’s pain will look very different if it exists at all.

But we’ll still need to eat, and we’ll still presumably need shelter (hence buildings) and we’ll still presumably need clothes at least occasionally.

Without the capacity of the heart to lust or to feel ashamed, nudity loses its status as a morally-questionable state, but if cold and heat and precipitation continue, it’s conceivable we might need clothing to make the bearing of environmental conditions more commodious.

If there are clothes in the new heavens and the new earth (beyond the white robes which might be literal or symbolic) I can’t imagine that they’d be uncomfortable or ill-fitting or be sold only in unflattering shades and cuts simply because that’s the fashion. Entirely probably there will be a lot more individuality and variation in what is worn and what is available to be worn, and just as with buildings, they’ll be created as if each one is a work of art, without the shoddy workmanship or second-rate materials of so much of our contemporary mass-production.

And we’ll still want to travel and get places. If you’re going to live forever and so are the people you’re going to see, in a sense it doesn’t matter that it’s going to take you years to walk from Brabant to Beijing, but I’m sure there are going to be instances in which time really is of the essence and we just have to get there quickly.

There’s that Divine teleportation of Philip the deacon after he baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, travelling over 40 miles by being carried by the Spirit to “appear” at Azotus, but we have no way of knowing whether that will be something we can all access at will (our human wills being perfectly synched to the Divine Will) or whether it was a special act of God for a special purpose.

It’s possible we’ll all be footbound or using Philip Airways, but human beings are vastly more creative than that, and any moyorcyclist will tell you there’s a very real pleasure to be derived from a machine and the open road, and I don’t think the Lord is against that pleasure.

I can’t really see that there wouldn’t be the opportunity of all sorts of modes of transportation, if only for the joy of their operation. Bicycles and trains and motorbikes and cars and trucks on the land, gliders and aeroplanes and dirigibles and helicopters and things we haven’t even invented yet in the air.

I can’t imagine that they’d be polluting, so fitted with clean-burning engines that ought to be no problem for immortal scientists and engineers with Divinely-guided faculties to work out and make efficient.

And the roads! No potholes, for a start! I cannot imagine that the penny-pinching, good-enough attitudes that allow such things here would continue there. When we build roads and railways, we’ll build them properly with good materials, and they’ll be designed for the loads we know they’re going to get, not for the cheapest we can get away with. In the New Jerusalem, gold is a paving material; I don’t believe cost is an issue here.

Rockets? Spaceships? Travel to other planets and other stars? I have no clue, but why not? Maybe “fill the earth” doesn’t just mean the Earth, but the cosmos?

Boats – well, there’s that troubling statement that “there was no longer any sea”, but lakes and rivers still put forth the possibility of boats. Besides, I personally believe that statement’s more than a little symbolic. Jews were even worse sailors than the Romans were, and “the sea” was viewed as a tumultuous, deadly, evil place. It stood for chaos, anarchy, trouble in the world. No more of that. No more national and international chaos out of which demagogues and dictators arise and which evil people use to propel themselves to power. One Kingdom, belonging to the Lord.

This leads directly on to the question of social and political arrangements.

We know that Jesus Christ shall reign on the earth, and we with Him, but over whom, and how in practice?

Frankly, my imagination fails here, and I can no more speculate on what Heavenly political/administrative arrangements will look like than I can conceive what the colour green smells like. Without the fallen craving of power for its own sake, without evil and sin to be restrained or injustice to be combated, how will we be governed if not by general goodwill?

And yet administration is listed as one of the spiritual gifts, so we can anticipate that there might still be a need for some sort of formal human governance.

Similarly, the new earth’s economic system is beyond my personal imagining? Perfect communism with a population that actually works responsibly and with one another’s best interests at heart? It’s possible, despite the assumed equivalence of right-wing political economics with the way of God that’s currently fashionable in America.

Or some sort of Divine capitalism with business owners who always have both the will and the ability to do the right thing by their customers, their employees and their investors, who won’t take advantage or game the system. Much as those of us toward the Left might not want to admit it, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s not capitalism (or communism, purely in economic terms) in and of itself that’s corrupt and anti-God, it’s the darkness in our hearts that it lets loose and enables that is the problem. No more darkness, no more problem.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. This false choice between providing jobs for one’s citizens and not despoiling the planet will be gone. We’ll work out ways to nurture and tend God’s green earth while we do our regular work. We won’t need to choose between affordable and green.

I know that God is concerned about economic issues – there’s more in the Bible about money than there is about preaching – but my imagination simply fails. Can we own anything if “the Earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it”? Will there be such a thing as money or trade?

I suppose so, given its prominence in the Scriptures, but it won’t look anything like the current contemporary abortion.  And it’s entirely possible there won’t be.  There’s enough else in the Bible that’s just instructions for how to live in a fallen world, after all.

And what of the sciences? I don’t believe they’ll be allowed to languish. Those who study the Creation and its physical underpinnings will be truly “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, and we won’t have any issues about funding or tenure or academic rivalries or deliberate distortions for gain by others, nor yet the dull predation of an ignorant media more concerned with spin and headlines than with the truth of the matter.

Heh, even advertisers will be telling the whole truth, and if their profession survives that stroke then more power to them!

All of this is not to step aside from the very important truth that the new cosmos is Theocentric. I’ve approached the idea of the new heavens and the new earth from a rather humanistic (small “h”, in its old sense of “concerned with the human”) perspective, but one aspect of our society, particularly our Western society, that will have to change is the Humanistic (capital “H”) notion that man is both the measure and end of all things.

God is on the Throne, visibly and acknowledgedly. Our lives will be spent before His face in the contemplation and worship of Him.  This is clear and unquestioned in the Scriptures.

But what is worship? What does it mean to live life coram Deo – before the face of God?

The old monastic communities had at least this much right: labore est orare, to work is to pray. And our modern worship-leaders have rightly reminded us time and again that what happens when we get together in our church buildings every Sunday is not worship – or rather, not the whole of worship. Worship is a heart-response to the Lord God, and it’s no accident that the Hebrew word for it is related to a word meaning “to come towards to kiss”. And that can and should be happening as much in our daily work and interactions with colleagues and friends as it does in our corporate singing on the Lord’s Day.

We don’t see and experience that but here and there, now and then in this world, but then…? Then we shall be before His face day and night, with no veils between us and the Majestic One, knowing fully even as we are fully known.

But even the great multitude before the Throne and the Lamb is not the whole of worship. There will be those who, before the Throne and face of God, build buildings or write poems and stories and music or prepare and serve delicious food or run and jump, sail boats, pilot aircraft or make new scientific discoveries.

These things are part of the image of God as Creator, and I simply refuse to believe that we will be less in touch with that image there than we are here.

The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

And with those six words, I’m probably starting a riot among my friends on social media. Especially the Americans.

Yes, 9/11 happened. Yes, the perpetrators called themselves Muslims. Yes, a large number of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations of the world actively persecute their national Christians in one form or another. Yes, Iran’s leadership consider America (and by extension the West in general) to be their enemies. Yes, all of that.

Even so, Christians are required to love Muslims. What part of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” did you think was optional? Did you think the parable of the Good Samaritan was told the way it was because Samaritans were really great people who loved the Jews?

Unlike most of the people spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric into my Facebook news feed, I’ve actually lived overseas in a Muslim-majority nation. I’ve been in a mosque. I’ve had Muslim friends. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert as such, but I can talk about what I’ve seen and experienced.

The country in question was in no way without its problems, but the people were almost without exception courteous and hospitable to this Western Christian in their midst. Hospitable to a fault, actually; the local tradition basically considered guests to be an expression of Divine trust and favour. You can be trusted to take care of guests properly.

I was there when 9/11 happened. I saw it through television reports in a majority-Muslim country.

No-one celebrated. The news coverage wasn’t “see how the Great Satan has fallen”; it was shocked disbelief that anyone could be evil enough to do such a thing.

Over the next couple of months, the streets around the US embassy filled with flowers for blocks in every direction.

My American wife (only she wasn’t yet my wife at the time) only had to let it out that she was an American for the sympathy to pour out.

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

-We hope you find the evil people who did this.

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

They weren’t doing this because someone told them to. They weren’t doing it because they were rebelling against some kind of Islamic tyranny. They were doing it because they were decent human beings and it’s what you do.

I’ve seen the clip that always gets played when people want to tell me the Muslim world was celebrating at 9/11. And I mean “the clip”; I’ve only seen just the one. It was somewhere in the Middle East, not where I was. And what I noticed about the clip was not that people were celebrating and dancing, but how few in number they seemed to be and who exactly it was that was celebrating.

What I saw was a group of no more than 50, and probably around 20, composed entirely of little old ladies and children. People who, not to put too fine a point on it, probably didn’t know any better. And only ever that one clip, which has somehow entered the American public consciousness as “the Muslim world were all partying in the streets”.

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

Every time I make a comment about Christians needing to show love and respect to Muslims, I get a barrage of comments telling me how “they hate us”, “they want to kill us”, “they hate Israel”, “you hate your wife and daughters”, etc. I’ve seen people posting ignorant memes that “Muslims have contributed nothing at all to world civilisation”.

Enough.

Yes, there are Muslim fanatics that hate America and/or Christians. Tell me there aren’t Americans and Christians that hate them. And we have far less excuse, because their religion does not command them to love their enemies. Ours does. In my experience, most of them just want to get on with their lives and don’t hate Americans at all.

But they can read, and they can see, and they can hear. They hear our claims that Christians love everyone, and they can see America emplacing entry bans on people from Muslim countries. They’ve also heard our claims that “America is a Christian country”, which reinforce their pre-existing beliefs shaped by the fact that places like Iran and Saudi Arabia really are Muslim countries in terms of the national and legal structures of the state being Muslim. That’s the way they tend to interpret our claims of Christian countryhood; they think that there’s no difference between the actions of the USA as a nation and the actions of the Christian church.

Many of them get frustrated by the church’s apparent blinkered support for the State of Israel. This is a thorny issue replete with biases and half-truths and unclarity on all sides including mine, and I don’t want to say a lot about it right here, but the fact is that many Muslims think we believe that the State of Israel can do no wrong, ever.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Note that I didn’t say that was an accurate belief, just that that’s what they think.

I’m not even going to dignify “you hate your wife and daughters” with a proper response. It’s a deliberately contrary-minded, ignorant comment that equates loving Muslims with support for the fanatics’ agenda. I’m a Christian and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ, but that does not mean I support the perverted agenda of every cultist who’s ever claimed to represent the True Church.

And “Muslims have contributed nothing to world civilisation” is, if possible, even more ignorant. In the period of the Crusades, the Muslim world were far more advanced than the Christian nations, particularly in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. While the Christians were struggling to do simple arithmetic using the unwieldy Roman numerals, the Arabs had a place-notation that we still use today in modified form. It’s not for no reason that we call them “Arabic numerals”. Muslim astronomers like Avicenna (ibn Sina, to use the proper form of his name) made observations of the heavens that wouldn’t be equalled in Europe for hundreds of years. And well into the 1600s every European court had its Arab or Moorish (ie black North African Muslim) physician, because the Christians were dangerous incompetents more interested in bleeding you than healing you. Most of what Western Christian and post-Christian scientists have discovered about science builds off of work done by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages.

But even if they were just as ignorant and stupid as we are, still we would be required to love them.

It is, after all, one of the commands of Christ. How can we claim to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus if we obey everything except the bits we don’t like? If we love only those who love us, how are we better than demon-worshipping pagans?

We’re commanded to love our enemies. There’s no listed exception clause that says “but if they hate your country then you don’t have to”. There’s no exemption for people that don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; in fact, the focus is specifically on those who do not believe. The ones who were persecuting and spitefully abusing when Jesus said those words were pagan Romans, many of whom thought the Jews were too troublesome to live, and the Christian sect of Judaism was even worse.

If we are going to call ourselves His followers, we do not get to pick and choose who we love.

We don’t have to support the agenda of the radicals. We don’t have to decide that they’re right in what they believe. But we do have to love them.

This begins with being respectful. Being friendly. Taking the time to get to know the alien and stranger in our midst, about whom even the Old Testament Law was quite firm: “do not despise an alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt”. Find out what help they need. Act like a good neighbour. It’s not rocket science.

They aren’t robotic avatars of The Islamic Threat, or whatever you think is driving them. They’re just people, like you and me. They have kids that they want a better life for, they have sports fandoms and hobby interests, they mistrust the secularising influences around them just like many Christians do. God made Selim just like He made Simon, in His image and likeness. God loves Aisha just as He loves Alice. Muslims really aren’t that different from you and I. Just people whom God loves and wants to come to a better and deeper knowledge of Him, made in His image just like me.

And Jesus commands us to love them. Hadn’t we better be about it?

Liturgical Musings

My church upbringing was in a denomination that didn’t have a lot of time for formal liturgy. I don’t mean that our worship services were completely spontaneous and unstructured; there was a formula or pattern to these things and we followed it. You might call that an informal liturgy, I suppose, but there wasn’t a lot of formulaic responsive recitation or reading. “Lift up your hearts” “We lift them up to the Lord” or “May the peace of Christ be with you” “And with your spirit also” didn’t have a place in our services.

The closest thing we had to a liturgical formula was that the pastor would frame our participation in the Communion with I Corinthians 11:23-26:  Paul’s explanation of what’s supposed to happen in the living ritual. And that was his personal practice, not a denominational custom or mandated liturgy. Oh, and we’d usually end our services by saying “the Grace” to one another: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.”

With this background, naturally as a teen I was a little suspicious of formal liturgies. How can worship be genuine, it was reasoned, if you’re just going through the motions of reading or reciting the same old stuff every week?  How does that really touch wherever you are right now?

As an adult with a vastly broader church experience, I look at this reasoning and see a lot of missing the point. I’ve seen some of the drivel that some people unfortunately come up with when left to their own devices. It’s like people writing their own wedding vows: some people do a good job and create something both personal and meaningful, others shouldn’t have been let near the process without close editorial supervision. You never know what you’re going to get.

Beside that, it’s rather arrogant to assume that anyone worshipping with the aid of a formal liturgy is only going through the motions. And by implication, all “free” and “spontaneous” worship is always pure and genuine.

Real worship isn’t what your mouth is doing so much as what your heart is doing. I can remember plenty of completely spontaneous “times of worship” in which I was just going through the motions, pursuing an emotional high and not the Lord. In certain circles you look really spiritual if you’re willing to dance up and down the aisles – and I’ve done that from sincere and insincere motives – but there’s no place for any feelings of superiority over those whom God meets in quietness and stillness and the reading of time-honoured words.

So I’ve made my peace with liturgy as an adult, more or less. I think one of the main driving forces in my personal reconciliation with formal liturgy was spending several years in Charismatic-type churches and watching them botch Christmas by seemingly failing to acknowledge Our Lord’s birth in worship. When you fetishise not using hymns, apparently that means you can’t sing Christmas carols either, not even the ones replete with truth like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. And so Jesus’ birthday gets sidelined and ignored by His own church.

Sorry. Pet peeve of mine. Anyway, what most liturgical-type churches do really well is the church calendar. It’s an entirely different mode and model of a worship service, in which any one service is conceived as being part of a larger, ongoing flow of service through the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Easter, Pentecost and right around to the end of what’s called “Ordinary Time” and the start of the next cycle. The focus seems more long-term and ongoing than immediate and “today”.

Ideally, we should be able to find a way to have both. There’s a place for spontaneous worship that breaks out of stale patterns and finds God at work in ways that no-one expected. The Holy Spirit doesn’t tend to like it when our formulas become so all-encompassing that He doesn’t have any room to do something different, but sometimes even our “free and spontaneous worship” just becomes another formulaic straitjacket for Him. Dancing before the Lord can be a wonderful expression of liberated devotion to hHim, or it can be someone looking like a prat because they think on some level that God can only really meet them in a place of emotional high.

These days, I approach a liturgical formula like “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” “It is right for us to give thanks and praise” and I think “you know what? It is right”. And that’s a truth you don’t often encounter outside of a liturgical-type worship service. Much of the formal liturgy is written the way it is because it expresses certain truths that have withstood the test of centuries.

Oh, some of it’s dross. Often the bits that have been generated by people meddling with the originals in the name of “updating” them, in my experience. And unless you’re careful to maintain a worshipful heart, just mouthing words will do you no good at all. But that’s true whatever our corporate worship services look like.

 

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.

How Silently, How Silently

Every year, as the season of Advent progresses, I find myself focused on a different aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the amazing faith it took to embrace her part in the Lord’s plan.

Some years it’s been Joseph and what it takes for a man to be father to the Son of God.

A couple of years ago it was the giving of gifts and the Lord’s generosity.

Last year it was connecting the First Coming to the Second.

This year, I think the focus might be on the hiddenness of it all. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.

Anyone who’s been around the process of giving birth ought to be aware that this is a bit of a conceit, rather like “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”. Jesus was, in fact, a real human being, a Baby for all intents and purposes just like every other baby, with real tears and real wails of distress. And He didn’t come into the world without pain, either.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that the birth of the King-Messiah wasn’t in an imperial palace and heralded with trumpets.

The world, as it is wont to do, was focused on the lives and times of the rich and great. Augustus Caesar was on the throne in Rome; the Roman puppet Herod the Great ruled in the province of Judea. His building projects expanding Temple Mount and building the Herodion palace were fairly recently completed, monuments to himself and to human ideas of greatness.

And in a small village in the very shadow of Herod’s fortress palace, a couple of poor teenagers displaced by the great Caesar’s tax census laid their newborn in a feeding trough to get him off the floor of the barn.

The Son of God, the promised Deliverer and King, possessing more intrinsic greatness than every ruler or potentate that history has ever called “the Great”, born into the equivalent of a refugee camp for displaced persons in a conquered province, to a couple of teenagers from the very bottom of the economic ladder.

In the shadow of “Make America Great Again”, it’s… challenging.

Jesus’ homeland had no military power. It was occupied territory, under the sandaled heel of the empire that invented crucifixion as a means of execution and which came up with the terrifyingly simple Pax Romana: “Do not fight, or we will kill you”. The Romans were good at killing people in job lots.

And in this conquered territory, Jesus was born in a small village. Today we tend to exalt country life as a lifestyle to strive for, but back then it was the cities that were the places everyone wanted to live; they were the safe places where you could live out your life without so much fear of bandits or thieves. In terms of how we think about different types of places, Jesus was born in an urban ghetto.

Not only that, but He was born not to rich, powerful people but to the poorest of the poor. The “pair of doves or two pigeons” sacrifice for a firstborn that Joseph and Mary made to fulfill God’s Law was the very least sacrifice for the very lowest income bracket. Today, Mary and Joseph might not be earning enough to even pay income tax; back then, they were being shunted around like pawns on a chessboard by those who demanded their taxes.

Herod’s greatest self-named monument to his own glory, the palace at Herodion, was visible from Bethlehem, but what a difference! Swimming pools and gardens in the rocky Judean wilderness, all constructed on a mountain effectively built by Herod’s engineers, Jesus’ human family would probably have looked too scruffy even to live in the servants’ quarters.

Born in a stable, because there was no room in the inn. And you’d only be staying in the inn to begin with if you had no family in the area to stay with. Both of them being “from the house and line of David”, where were their relatives? It seems Joseph’s decision to obey the Lord and marry Mary anyway may have caused his relatives to disown them.

And so comes the King of the Universe. So very silently that even the Magi almost missed it. Not in a palace, not with trumpets. His birth proclaimed to shepherds – a profession so unskilled that it was frequently left to dozy children, of so little status that even farmers looked down on them. These are the fast-food restaurant workers and tollbooth attendants of the ancient world.

It’s appropriate. The Kingdom of the Messiah is fundamentally inverted compared to what humans value. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn…” in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Paupers, widows, tax-men, revolutionary terrorists, women and children exalted, the devout, God-fearing good folk of the Pharisee movement castigated and insulted. By the time of the early church, towns were screaming in panic that “the people who have turned the whole world upside-down have now come here!”

A Kingdom for the weak, the disadvantaged, the poor, the marginalised. Losers, misfits, the ugly and the unsuccessful, those who couldn’t make a go of it in the Roman world’s system. Led by a homeless man who had a political revolutionary among His inner circle and whose followers would institute a communistic economy among themselves, based on giving and sharing rather than buying and selling. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Tremble, o world.