There are few people who do not enjoy the view of a mountain, or feel a sense of awe from an ancient tree. Yet, what is it we are seeing? Wounds. The wounds of the earth as it was formed, one tectonic plate crashing violently into another, rupturing the surface. The wounds of time on the tree, harsh winters, limbs broken then healed over. A scientist might have come up with something better. Nurturing the tree in a laboratory without hardship, without character. God has done a better job.

We struggle with the idea of wounds. When my son was an infant we got together with some friends, praying for his eczema to be healed. He was not healed. My fault, or so I found out later. I never got to find out why, because it was never said to my face, which is probably what hurt the most. On another occasion a visiting speaker prayed for a friend of mine for her diabetes. She was not healed either. It was due to her lack of faith. Apparently. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that the Kingdom of God is all about wholeness, the blind seeing and the lame walking. If that isn’t happening, then we have misunderstood the Kingdom, yet things are not always that simple.

Brennan Manning was a priest and an alcoholic. He woke up one morning from a drunken stupor, in a ditch, covered in his own vomit. It was at this low point that he realised that God loved him as he was, not as he should be. This sense of God’s love overwhelmed him and became his life’s message. Yet, in his autobiography he admits to never having being healed of his alcoholism, which continued to cause hurt to those around him. It was not the ending I wanted to read. I think too of a friend of mine who, many years ago, also died of alcoholism. He too was not healed. He too left behind him others who had been hurt.

We think that Jesus healed everyone, but, actually, he didn’t. He left Lazarus to die. For sure, he was resurrected a few days later, but, then, isn’t that our hope too?

In the Orthodox Church, they view the story of Adam and Eve differently than we do in the West. Adam and Eve are more like children, young and naive. They make mistakes. This may be disappointing, but it does not take us by surprise. It is part of growing up. Our job as parents is to help our children in that process, and this is close to how the Orthodox Church read this story. For sure, God did not want them to make that mistake, but he was not horrified, or even surprised, when they did. It was all part of their growing up, painful as it would be for them. Painful as it would be for him.

We all carry our wounds. Sometimes of our making, sometimes not. Our society would prefer those wounds would go away, or be hidden. Even in the church we do this. Yet, much of who I am was formed when I was a child, by broken parents in a broken home that leaves its scars. When I became a Christian a lot of things changed, but a lot of things did not. Even today, many of those wounds show. I will probably never be the life of the party. But, what I am learning, is that that it is OK. Not every wound, not every sickness is healed. Sometimes God says, this is one for you to learn to overcome in other ways. Like Jacob, we sometimes need to walk with a limp. But, perhaps, like with the mountains and the trees, it is what gives beauty to our lives.

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

Another light

Ken 03 Feb , 2017 0 comments World Culture

Darkness brings fear, so we seek light, but not always the same light. At the beginning of our civilisation, in 399BC, Socrates was condemned to death. He carried a torch, the torch of reason, using it to examine everything, but some things are best left unexamined. You could not expect to examine your gods and get away with it, so he paid a price. But the light he lit was not put out. His disciple, Plato, picked up the torch, as did Aristotle after him. With each step the light increased, gaining in richness and complexity. It was not the only torch that had been lit. The Athenians also lit a torch, this time for democracy, a light to prevent tyranny. Within the Greek corner of the globe light burned strong.

Meanwhile, another Greek was worrying about establishing his kingdom. Then, just as he achieves his goal, he dies, leaving his son with a vast army. Not knowing what else to do with them, Alexander decides to conquer the world. Something he proves remarkably good at, bringing with him the light of the Greeks. Alexander died young, leaving a vast empire ready for the might of Rome to take over and so, the Romans ended up consolidating an Empire around their might and the wisdom of the Greeks.

Now, in a world with many gods there is always room for one more. Consequently, the Romans were more than a bit puzzled by the attitude of the Christians, so, they tried forceful persuasion, but the Christian community just grew. Then in 312 AD Constantine unexpectedly won a major battle at Milvian Bridge, which he credited to the Christian God. So, he stopped oppressing the Christians and changed sides. To be sure, his was an odd conversion, but it led to a massive patronage of the Christian Church. By the end of the fifth century, what was left of the Empire was Christianised – by force where necessary. It may not have been a Christianity that the early church would have recognised, but paganism was dismissed, and for the next thousand years the light of the Greeks was all but forgot.

This all changed in the fourteenth century when the Black Death killed nearly half the world’s population. In Europe it had the curious effect of concentrating wealth into fewer hands, fewer hands that now had money to spend on art, new buildings and literature – reviving an interest in the learning of the Greeks. Ironically, it was the Church that preserved that literature, not always carefully, in its vaults. And it was from these vaults that the world began to rescue that light from obscurity and neglect. Whereas, to be civilised, it was once enough to be able to sign your name and balance your accounts, now it was essential to know Plato and Cicero, and with it people’s attitudes changed. Man’s reason had become the measure of all things and a new humanism emerged with a Christian veneer. And thanks to the printing press, these ideas were now made permanent.

In the sixteenth century men like Newton showed what was possible with this new learning, encouraging others to apply the Greek light to all areas of life. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century it had become the bedrock of the Enlightenment. With the truths of the church increasingly seen as part of a superstitious and ignorant past. And so, the light of the Greeks came again to Europe. Yet have we ever really asked where the light comes from?

Our Times

We live in a world very different from that of our forebears. We have learned to understand, master and then exploit nature. An exploitation that has led to prosperity for some, while others starve. At times it can seem insane and if we are to begin to understand it we need to know how we got here.

Our story begins with Bacon, Newton and Locke. William Blake’s ‘trinity of evil’. For Blake, they reduced the world to the material and the rational, depriving it of imagination. Yet, they were the inspiration for the men and women that led the Enlightenment. That period in our history when the light of reason was brought into our lives and the darkness of superstition (and religion) cast out. They were forging a Utopian future, although, in the end, it turned out more horrific than they imagined, as the ‘Reign of Terror’ followed the French Revolution and shocked the world. Enthusiasm for the Enlightenment was lost.

But the Victorians did not forget the Enlightenment. Instead, they industrialised it and created one of the greatest periods of change in our history. At the beginning of the Victorian period Britain was a rural economy, but by the end, we were a world power, an industrial powerhouse and probably the richest nation on earth. Yet, there was also an unprecedented level of poverty on our streets that spoke loudly that something was wrong. Men, like Dickens, did much to awaken us to the misery we had created and the dark side of our revolution, the exploited poor. The situation became a public scandal and eventually even the most hardened softened towards helping those in need.

Then came two world wars. Mass destruction, but now on an industrial scale, shattering our prestige and ending our wealth. Yet the war left many widowed and wounded, so we did yet more to help those who could not help themselves. Yet, without our former wealth, we financed it with debt. So, we arrive at today. In nearly all respects better off, but also deeply in debt. We certainly don’t have the same misery of poverty. Yet, we are no more free. Fuelled by the need to compete to earn money and reduce our debt, like the Israelites in Egypt we are in systems that relentlessly ask us to do more with less. Today we call it ‘Lean’, but it goes by other names. Turning us into the cogs of a vast system of our own making, with barely time to stop for breath. Efficient, yes – the cold efficiency of a machine.

Now here is my question. What was I expecting of the Anti-Christ when he, she or it comes? Will it oppose Christianity more than our secular world, a world that treats all religions as irrelevant, even if well meaning and useful as a crutch for the weak? Will it perform greater miracles, with our planes that fly, phones that enable us to see and hear each other anywhere in the world – not to mention our medical ability to heal? Will the ‘light bringer’, Lucifer, bring more light than the Enlightenment? What more am I expecting? I have no answer, but the question troubles me.

These are strange times, where Utopian hopes persist, even if we are now also wary of them. I suspect our times are not as benign as I once believed. For sure, I am not expecting mass persecution when indifference has proved so effective. Yet, just perhaps, our world is not as safe as we think – and probably never was.

Rise and Fall

They’d been waiting five hundred years for the Messiah, only to watch him die. It could not have been a great day for his disciples. So, when a few days later he comes back from the dead, I think they would have been euphoric, if, perhaps, a little surprised. Given such an astounding start you can understand the energy of the early church, and no wonder it grew rapidly – in spite of the occasional loss to an odd lion or two.

Yet something went wrong, because within a few generations the church seems very different, with works of the Spirit largely absent. I can understand how some of the early enthusiasm would dampen with time, but while this might effect the rate of growth it does not seem to account for the change in the very nature of the church. Something happened in the transition to the Gentile church it became.

Now, the first Gentile converts were familiar with the Jewish context of its origins, but it was not long before the Jewish ideas became associated with Greek philosophical thinking. In part, this was probably motivated by making the Christian message easier to understand by the Greek world. At the same time, the Greek speaking world fought back with arguments of its own, while others began to assimilate Christian ideas into Gnostic thought. A battle was fought, entirely along Greek lines, which seems to have entrenched Christianity into a solidly Greek mould. One that had somehow lost sight of some of its Jewish roots, one where its narrative of Israel had been replaced by philosophic ideas and where the washing of feet had been relegated to a mere symbol, no longer affecting the way we live.

Before long, the church’s gentle drift away from its roots had become a rift and open hostility even arose towards the Jews, who were increasingly seen as those responsible for Jesus death. While Christianity lost its Hebrew edges, at the same time it increasingly began to find favour with the Empire. Christianity had become fashionable and eventually even the Empire became Christian – or at least, that is what the baptismal certificates all said.

The church had become influential and powerful, but it was a different Christianity. It had forgotten its narrative of God come down, becoming a servant to the point of death (let alone washing feet). It had forgotten that its power was found in weakness, and so, while finding power within the Empire, it lost it where it mattered.

Or at least, that is the explanation I have, the one I find most convincing. But what does it show us? It shows us just how easily truth can get lost when it moves from one culture to the next. Arguably, if the church had retained its Jewish perspective the issue would not have arisen, yet I suspect that this was not an option. The Jewish story meant nothing to the Greeks. To get the truth of the Gospel heard it had to be retold in the language of its culture. A transition that, history has shown, did not go well. This is an important reminder to us, because, like it or not, modernity represents perhaps one of the biggest cultural shifts in the history of civilisation. Our truths need re-embedding if they are to be heard, and that is not going to be easy.