What is Real?

We believe we know what is real, but maybe we are wrong. The world around us seems real enough, but the Kingdom of God knows another reality: the Spirit that blows where he wills. We stand in wonder when we hear of miracles and puzzle over why we don’t see more. Yet, we are part of a culture that imbibes the myth that this world is based on just facts and reason. It is a belief that has so got under our skin that we no longer realise it is there. Is it any surprise if that is all we get?

In the nineteenth century, the writing was already on the wall. Kierkegaard shouted his warning to a church that was becoming enmeshed in rationalism – either stripping Christianity of the miraculous or converting it into a system of logical premises. The premises may have been extracted from the Bible, by they just as certainly stripped it of mystery. Needless to say, Kierkegaard was not heard. He was probably not even understood. And we live in its legacy. It is what we teach our children and embed in our culture. We base our view of reality on the tip of an iceberg, while its true substance remains hidden from us.

We may think we have a ‘Biblical Worldview’, but Bill Johnson summed up the problem when he said that God never goes against the Bible, but he can surprise us by going against our understanding of it. If we try and place God in a box, he will at some point break out. We can’t predict what he will do next. He is beyond our understanding, beyond our reason. It took Job a while to figure this out, but in the end he got it. God will be God. The Spirit blows where he wills.

God is the only reality. It is in him that all things have their being. Our God who is, who was and who will be. We cannot describe him, understand him, or fit him into our boxes. He just is. We need to get it in our heads around the fact that we will never fathom God, even though we have an eternity to do it in, God is just too big for us ever to grasp.

But I need to ground this, so, here is a fact: dead people don’t rise. If a doctor certifies someone as dead, they will not be expecting them back for a follow up appointment. Death is final. Yet, Jesus arose from the dead. The resurrection matters. It is the turning point of history, without it, Jesus death on the cross is just another execution. Paul understood. Everything hinges on the resurrection. If a man, three days dead and cold in the ground can get up, then we need to re-assess how we see the world. This is the reality of the Kingdom, it is redefined around the Spirit of God.

The Enlightenment’s view of reality has become so embedded in our culture that we no longer see the extent to which we ourselves have imbibed it. It is powerful, because it is partly true, just not the whole truth. As subjects of the Kingdom, we are called to live from another reality, one based on a God who is. The resurrection is our touchstone and we need to embed its truth in our lives. And on the journey, don’t be surprised when the unexpected and miraculous happen. We should expect it, because, after all, the Sprit has always blown where he wills.

The Divine Imperative

Imagine: The light is dazzling, slowly your eyes adjust to the brightness and we see a man whose head and hair are white as snow and whose eyes blaze like fire. We hear his voice, and it is like the roar of the ocean and in his right hand he holds the seven stars of the churches. He is Lord of all, yet, when we look towards the earth, we realise that our enemy has not been sitting back, but is sowing lies and discord within the church.

In heaven we see God firmly on the throne, surrounded by heavenly beings pouring forth praise – they have no doubt who reigns. Yet, some things must be allowed to take place; seals that need to be broken which will release long held back disasters: there will be wars, famines and disease. We have sown its seeds and we must reap its harvest. Yet, God has set limits to the sufferings we have sown. Yes there will be times of woe, but we don’t always know when.

Today, we are beguiled by comfort and all appears well. We are warm, well fed and secure. We fail to see those who suffer. Yet, the rules haven’t changed: some do well at the expense of others. All that changes are those who benefit. We enjoy the candy, but fail to see its price. We live in a world where God is dead or no longer relevant, we flounder for meaning and value, where all that remains is the will to power. We build on poor foundations and will find no Utopia at the end of this road. Indeed, all empires come to and end eventually: they carry their own seeds of destruction. But, we are not without hope.

God has not abandoned the world that he loves. He has left his church as witnesses of him. Just as Jesus was sent into the world, so now the church is called to follow. We manifest God to the world and show it God’s love. Or at least, that is the plan. Over the years, we have lost our way and become confused, but God is calling us back to fulfil our destiny: To leave the proud city and come out from Babylon. We leave its perspectives, but we remain at its heart. We know it’s fate is sealed, and yet we stay, showing a God who loves the world more than anyone can imagine and who is the answer to their hearts deepest longing. The world needs our story. We are God’s gift to the world for its redemption. Yet darkness opposes the light and we should not expect to be unopposed. Being a witness could cost us our lives.

As times get darker, it is as though we watch the vast forces of our enemy assemble, like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. We sense a pending battle, whose outcome is uncertain. We await the conflict… only, there isn’t one. The enemy is simply tossed into a lake of fire. For all the hubris, the outcome is not in doubt and we have nothing to fear.

As a church we have our failings, but we are making ourselves ready and will one day fulfil our mission to be witnesses of God and his love. The call goes out to us now, to leave the city and follow the one who is worth following. Fulfilling the divine imperative, we will find our destiny and hearts deepest longing. We will, at last, be a people who begin and end with Jesus.

Red Pill

Our upbringing determines our view of reality. It gave us the cold truth of the rational and of the material. A truth that is solid. Only it isn’t. It is at best a shadow. Of course, Plato said much the same thing, but I am not arguing for Plato. In fact, it was the Greeks who mislead us, for they were wrong.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor makes the point that several hundred years ago we saw the world differently, a world that drew its meaning from the unseen, framed by God and by spiritual forces. Now, we have rejected that. For the only thing that really matters, the only thing that is really real is the material world around us. It is our certainty. Only it isn’t. We don’t need to look too far to puncture this balloon. Even science tells us that things are not what they appear. Time is not what it appears. Even matter as not as solid as we once believed. All, in their own ways, illusions, mere appearances.

We, like Thomas, declare we will not believe unless we can see. Yet, that does not mean that it is not true. In fact it is the height of our arrogance. Yet, our marginalising of the unseen has left us in an uncomfortable place, a place of desolation. Alone and meaningless in a empty universe. Yet we have our doubts. Something tells us there must be more, so we grope blindly in the dark for something, because anything is better than the emptiness of our nothing.

Yet, we do not need to walk blindly. We have a different story, the story told in our scriptures, of an unseen God, a God who stepped into our world to become as a man, the man Jesus. And what we saw shocked us. For having humbled himself to become like us, he then laid down his life, even to death on a cross, loving us, even as we are. For a short while, the unseen became seen and the world is no longer the same. For sure, this was not a new story. It is the same story told since the beginning, but for the first time we understood. Now we saw it in new light, a light that brought life. It is a light that even death could not put out, because Jesus rose again. The barrier between the seen and the unseen is now torn and we can pierce that barrier through our imagination by faith, enabling us to see beyond the seeing of our eyes and into the reality that lies beyond and into the reality that matters.

For Neo, in the film ‘The Matrix’, there was a pill he could take to dissolve the illusion. For us there is no pill, but the message of the gospel that we need to believe, a message that the church has not always preached clearly, clouded by problems of a different age, problems that are no longer relevant and stop the gospel being heard. Yet the power of the gospel remains and just as Luther needed to find its message for the Middle Ages, we too must learn to find its message for our generation. When we do, we will find that it is a decision worth taking, for, unlike the bleak and desolate world Neo discovered, we find that it is the bleak and desolate world we leave behind.


For more information see: Big Picture

Foolishness and Doubt

Doubt lays in wait, like a well oiled trap, ready to spring and catch us. When we get caught the response can be to fall back on faith and experience, and yet, in times of doubt, this may not be enough. At these times, we realise what the apostle Paul meant when he said that the Gospel was ‘foolish to the Greeks’.

Faith can be hard to define and often just as difficult to find when you need it. Sometimes all you can do is take a leap and choose to believe. We choose to place ourselves within the Christian story and experience it from the inside, waiting for the experience to confirm our decisive act. It is the experience, however, that remains key. It must follow, or we should seriously question the choice we have made. At times of doubt it is important that we remember that experience – the dramatic events, but also the accumulation of countless small events. The trouble is, that when hit by doubt, even the most dramatic experiences become open to question. You saw someone raised from the dead? Maybe they just feinted. You saw a cripple walk? Maybe it was a trick. Experience is an anchor, but on its own it is not enough.

I have tried to think of a better response to doubt, but I cannot escape the fact that our Gospel was once described as foolishness to the Greeks. Since the Enlightenment we have lived in a world dominated by Greek thought, a world of the material and the rational. We may have become cynical of the Enlightenment’s utopian promises, yet we still remain its children. When we try to pretend the Gospel is no longer foolishness, then, just maybe, we have lost sight of what the Gospel really is.

Yet, if we reject the Gospel, do we really enter a less foolish narrative? Our more secular narrative caries its own folly. It is adamant that what is reality is defined by what can be observed, measured and deduced. But where does this confidence come from? If it cannot be observed, then all we can really deduce is that it is unobservable, not that it does not exist. This point has been argued ever since Plato but is easily seen in the film The Matrix. The matrix was an illusion, but you could not tell from the inside. You just don’t know what you don’t know. Yet, when cracks show, we should at least get a little suspicious. When we speculate of matter we cannot see, that even the densest of matter is mainly empty space, and that things on the quantum scale are seemingly random and bizarre, we should at least begin to challenge our basic assumptions. The truth is, the world is not what we thought it was, and we do not have the certainties of previous generations. The secular narrative of our own culture has its own foolishness too.

So, the Gospel may be foolishness, but so, in its own way, is our modern culture. Indeed, the assumptions of modernity are already giving way to a greater openness to the unseen. It seems as though there are doubts all around now. So, in the end, I have no answers. Which is perhaps why we are encouraged to rely on the power that is in the Gospel to break through. A power that is beyond our understanding and maybe that is just as it should be.

Imagine

Our view of reality places limits on what we do. We sensibly recall Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Yet, do we always have the wisdom to know the difference? History suggests, not.

Wisdom told us that it was impossible to run a four minute mile. It was unimaginable to everyone. Everyone except Colin Banister that is, who could imagine its possibility, and then went ahead and did it. Of course, once others saw it was possible, the unimaginable became imaginable – to the point that today it almost seems common place. Although I still struggle to imagine that, as my best remains closer to 15 minutes!

In the sixties, segregation and racial discrimination was an excepted fact of life, until Martin Luther King gave people a dream. A dream that helped people imagine a different future, until that imagined future pervaded society and the dream became increasingly a reality, to the point that, today the U.S. has a black president, something that would have been utterly unimaginable only a generation earlier.

Wherever you look, there have been great leaders who have caused us to reimagine things, whether a Winston Churchill or a Steve Jobs. They help us see the world differently, not as it is, but as it could be. They help us imagine victory when we see defeat, success when we see failure, a way forward when we see none.

We need to imagine.

Not long ago I was asked why I write this blog. This is the reason.

The New Testament describes a reality that is not seen today. We have lost something and do not know the way back. I am not even convinced there is a way back, even assuming we should want to take it. The path for us has to be forward. Yet, what do we make of the past we have left behind or the promised reality that we cannot see?

It seems to me that there are two main approaches to this. The first is to say that that was a former time. A time that is not to be repeated and even, when viewed from the sober judgement of today’s reason, may never have been in the first place. Trying to recreate what may never have been, or was a once off, is foolishness.

The second approach is to allow myself to be drawn into a different reality. I may not know how to change my life so that I live in the truth of the Kingdom of God and its limits, rather than those of the world around me. I don’t even know what that looks like. But I can begin to imagine.

So, I am imagining how things were. Recreating a past from different angles to help me see afresh, for I have become too familiar with the old truths and they no longer reach me. Then, I can begin to reimagine those truths for today. The two worlds colliding, and in that collision, to once more make the unimaginable imaginable again.

I cannot imagine myself ever running the four minute mile, but I can imagine the day when my imagination no longer constrains me, but draws me forward into a greater reality. That is my aim. That is why I write these stories. I share them for anyone else that wants to listen.