“The last ten or fifteen years, hospitality has been the buzzword for evangelism or church planting, as a way of getting people in the door. A tool, you could say. A trick, you could say. Where it’s like, ‘Don’t you want to be one of us? Aren’t we cool?’ … Hospitality isn’t a trick, it’s not a tool. It has to be genuine. It has to be authentic.” Pointed, but insightful comment from Jayme Reaves, author of Safeguarding the Stranger speaking on Nomad Podcast N166.
Earlier today I was thinking about the theory of cosmic origins known as the Big Bang theory. I’m no cosmologist, but the theory seems to correlate very well with what we observe in the universe (in three key ways: cosmic expansion, microwave background, and the abundance of less-dense elements). Many Christians seem unduly nervous about giving any credence to many of the insights of modern science, even where science is trying to interpret empirical data. Perhaps another quote I came across today will be surprising. It’s from Jean. Yes, that one.
Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind…. He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (Institutes 2.2.16)
How we need to recover the expansive idea of Common Grace as Calvin construed it, and indeed the partnering concept of a Law of Creation.
Two weeks ago, I preached my last sermon in Kilmallie Free Church as the Assistant Minister. A couple of Sundays before, I preached for the last time and presided over my final communion at Acharacle Free Church. As always I especially enjoyed being at Acharacle. The Lord has brought together a good number of solid and vibrant Christian people there, and I pray that he would add to their number those who are being saved.
In the last two weeks we’ve moved home, with all of the busyness that comes with that. But, there’s been time for reflection too. We came to Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan Free Church in August 2014. Three years and three months later (roughly), we’re moving on. There have been some wonderful moments during that time, but also some deeply distressing and difficult times. Pastoral ministry always has this mix I guess, but the last few months have been particularly tough. But God, through his grace, speaks into these situations and calls us onwards under his care and healing hand. My prayers are very much with the folk at Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan Free Church as they move into the future and a new chapter in the life of the congregation. I pray for good things under the Lord’s good hand.
For myself, and for Rachel and our children (who have their own lives now pretty much) it’s a new chapter too. In January, I take up the post of Lecturer in New Testament studies on the faculty at Highland Theological College. I’m humbled, and grateful, to have the opportunity to work in the academy. I’m looking forward to working for the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland’s newest university. I’m looking forward to working there in the service of the church. I’ve always prayed that my theological endeavours would be undertaken as worship, and that they would serve the everyday folk of the church. My prayer is the same now, as I prepare to begin teaching at my second, and most-loved (sorry Imperial College) alma mater. HTC holds a special place in my heart. So, entering that fine Dingwall building in January – although I’ve done it so many times before – will be a special moment.
But it’s daunting – I have hard acts to follow… My NT Jedi Master, Dr Mike Bird (now at Ridley College, Melbourne), taught me, one of his padawans (!), all of my undergraduate NT modules and laid a foundation for which I continue to thank the Lord. Dr Jason Maston (now of Houston Baptist University) supervised my PhD studies and modelled to me academic rigour. My predecessor, Rev Dr Alistair Wilson (who’s heading to Edinburgh Theological Seminary) loved HTC so much he did two stints! Mike followed him the last time he departed – so I really do have a lot to live up to! All of these are good men, Neutestamentlers of quality, and I hope myself in turn to be able to give a good account to the one of whom the New Testament most eloquently speaks.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, The Madman.
I thought of Nietzsche’s well-known quote as I came across an article by David Mitchell in the Observer last month. The basis for the article was something said by Neil MacGregor, who is following his highly-successful and fascinating series A History of the World in 100 Objects, with another series: Living with the Gods. MacGregor has proved himself an able art historian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s qualified to set out a history of religious belief. I heard him on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, describing the series, and using ‘belief’ and ‘habits’ interchangeably, which is precisely the kind of imprecision that will get you into bother with a history of religions.
Anyway, MacGregor had made a really important observation, an observation that everyone should take seriously. It’s candid, and perceptive. MacGregor had said about Britain in 2017:
We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different. We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that.
Mitchell picks up on the significance of this statement. So should we all. Read that again – let it sink in. After reflecting on it in his usual sardonic manner, Mitchell concludes:
To change so quickly from a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loudly and clearly, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, and few are totally convinced otherwise, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind. It’s not a development I regret, but it’s a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed.
So, here’s Mitchell putting together 21st Century Britain’s rejection of it’s Christian metanarrative, in a way no other nation quite has, with the rise in anxiety which so many people feel. There are all kinds of social statistics that suggest that British society is not particularly healthy (whether rates of prescription anti-depressants, teenage pregnancy, or lower measures of happiness and well-being). Then, there’s the evidence from the recent hand-wringing reckoning around abusive and exploitative sexist behaviour in Westminster (which reckoning is the socially acceptable iceberg-tip for the reckoning that no-one – mostly no-ones who are men – wants in their own workplaces or homes or clubs on a Saturday night).
So, put Mitchell’s connection together with a story that appeared about the same time in the media. Esther Rantzen appeared on a number of TV slots to speak about a 15-20% rise in calls to Childline prompted by suicidal thoughts. Why this alarming rise? Was there an explanation? Well, the usual suspects were brought out. I’m sure social media is part of it. I’m sure the objectification of women and a highly-sexualised society are part of it. I’m sure that casting our goals in life within the framework of aggressive consumerism and an immoral capitalism – yes, part of it too.
Rantzen pointed out something very important: when you compare children’s happiness across the developed nations, the United Kingdom does particularly poorly. And that’s when my thoughts went back to Mitchell’s article. Why is our culture like this? You can bring out the usual suspects, but one suspect not in the identity parade, but skulking in the shadows (as Mitchell realises), is The Murder of God. Our exceptional experiment, our swift, ignorant and hubristic rejection of a 2,000 year tradition of thought and belief that has formed the pillars of European culture. Our rejection of Christianity. Who will wipe this blood off our hands?
David Mitchell might not regret the Death of God in our culture, but I regret it. Yes, I regret it personally, because of my intellectual convictions about truth. But I regret the cost to our society, and especially to our children.
“Faith – this means, naturally, that no person or church can live from the greatness of their own actions. They instead live solely from the great act that God himself does and has done. And (this is what is crucial) the great acts of God remain unseen and hidden in the world. Things in the church are simply not the way they are in the world and in the history of nations, where it is ultimately a question of being able to point to great deeds.
The church that tried to do that would have already long since fallen to the laws and powers of this world. The church of success has truly not been the church of faith for a long time. The act that God did in this world, and from which all the world has since lived, is the cross on Golgotha. Such are God’s “successes,” and the successes of the church and the individual are like that when they are acts of faith. That faith abides means that it remains true, that human beings must live from what is invisible, that they live not from their own visible work but from the invisible act of God…
And so it is with the Reformation church. It never lives from its deeds or from its acts of love. It instead lives from what it does not see and yet believes.”
‘The Acts of God, Hidden in the World’, I Want to Live these Days with You, 315 (DBW 13.400)
Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means. Ibid.
Bonhoeffer speculates that a time will come when the ‘resolving and liberating’ word of resurrection will be heard in the midst of so much confusion. In this Easter season, my prayer is that the time has arrived for the word of resurrection to be heard afresh in the Church.
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Rom 8:11 NIV)
86% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Another life where your soul lives on (e.g. heaven/hell)’
16% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Reincarnation (e.g. starting a new life in a different physical body or form after death)’
1. it happened word-for-word as described in the Bible;
2. the Bible account has elements which are not to be taken literally.
1. I believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
2. I do not believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
Lord, I’ve been broken, although I’m not worthy, you fix me – now I’m blinded by your grace, you came and saved me
You saved this kid, and I’m not your first, it’s not by blood and it’s not by birth, but Oh my God, what a God I serve
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV
The Christian life is a process, one which is started by the gospel becoming central to all aspects of your life. For that reason, change is one of the most important components. It’s impossible to meet with Jesus and stay the same. Let’s hope and pray that as these artists continue to be open with their faith, they are also open to the change that we are all in need of.
They stay the same, no they never change, ain’t nuttin strange… / They wanna hang, just wanna party, kick some slang, sip on some Bacardi…
Think about this, then think about that / think of what they do, think of how they act… / they say God knows my heart, but that don’t get ‘em off the hook…
They don’t want to learn, they just want to know… / They just want the watch, don’t want to know the time…
They don’t want to become, they only want to be… / They just think he’s gracious, what about his wrath?
They might not be sheep, they might be the goats…
They say that they’re we, we used to be they / we had our last night, we live in a different day
Last Sunday evening I was preaching the third of three sermons on Genesis 3 – the last few verses of that chapter. It’s the part of the Story of Adam & Eve where they’re driven from the Garden of Eden, that place of fruitfulness and beauty in the presence of God. The Garden is the place where they function as God’s Image, human beings of god-like character able to relate fully and joyfully to one another and to all the riches of the created world. But they’re driven out, because this isn’t enough for them. In a way, they want to be gods. It’s a deeply poignant story which speaks about loss to all of us, that speaks about the realities of human nature.
I often reflect on the incredible power of the created world to stir deep longings in our souls. A few Saturdays ago, George Monbiot wrote eloquently about it:
I believe we possess a ghost psyche: a set of capacities that helped secure our survival in more dangerous times, but that now are vestigial. I picture this as a seam of intense emotion, buried so deeply in our minds that we can seldom find it. I believe this because, on rare occasions – in all cases when immersed in the living world – I have been confronted with a set of feelings that are so rich, raw and thrilling, so different from anything else I know, but at the same time so strangely familiar, that I have had no way of reconciling them with the rest of my emotional life. I believe that on these occasions I have inadvertently triggered a kind of genetic memory, an ancient adaptation to the circumstances that once shaped our lives.
You’ve probably experienced it yourself. I’ve experienced it encountering a deer in the woods (like Monbiot) in the early morning light; or travelling in a small boat surrounded by leaping dolphins; or crouched on a high mountain ridge watching an eagle ride the updrafts. I’ve experienced it in the solitude of a remote glen, or of a mountain summit, but mostly it’s been in encounters with other creatures.
Does Christianity offer an account of this? An account of these rich and raw emotions, which are strangely familiar? Something more substantial than a ghost psyche? Or perhaps a Christian understanding of this ghost psyche…? I believe it does. The lost Garden represents a lost reality to humans – something yearned for and understood in our deep (sub)consciousness as being lost.
The opening lines of the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures tell us that we are created for relationship, not only with our creator, not only with one another, but with the natural world. We are created to live alongside, and to relate to, all of God’s creatures. The first man is Adam (the Hebrew for ‘soil’ is adamah), and he’s formed from the earth. This simple truth sets a trajectory for all of the scriptures – that human beings are inextricably bound up with the earth, with the natural world. This is our home, it’s where we belong. That fact that many Christians will baulk at that statement (thinking thoughts such as ‘where’s that Bible verse that says that heaven is our home?’ Let me save you some time – it’s not there), only shows how far we have travelled from this anchor of truth.
The sense of primal joy (and sometimes primal fear) – that deep, seemingly genetic memory – recalls something fundamental to our being human. And yet it is, in some deep sense, lost. We’re unable to grasp the wholeness we are created for, to hold in our minds the value and beauty of the natural world. And we’re unable to live lives which ‘fit’ into this beautiful world, that ‘fit’ in love, joy and peace alongside these amazing creatures. We are created to Image God – to represent him – in his world. Yet, we can’t.
That’s why, for so many people, these joyful and ecstatic encounters with nature are often accompanied with a sense of the transcendent. A sense of reaching for something, or someone, that’s out of reach. People of all kinds of belief (and none) often describe to me the spiritual feelings they get whilst in the outdoors. There’s not only a sense of a lost Garden, but of a lost God, our Creator, who we are also created to know. The hopeful message of Christianity is that there is a way back.
Thinking these thoughts brought to mind again a beautiful little film based on the writings of John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and environmentalist. Take a look, and hear words which resonate so much more deeply when heard as a Christian:
‘A lifetime is so little a time, that we die before we get ready to live. But here in the wilderness, surrounded by beauty beyond thought, the landscape carried me back into the midst of a life infinitely remote.’