Friday, April 28, 2006

Help My Unbelief

From the sermon: Rewriting the Book of Love, from Help My Unbelief: sermons by Fleming Rutledge, published by Eerdmans 2004

The performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose new show is opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week, is a reader of the Bible and the literary classics. According to The New York Times article about her, she deals in ‘big ideas’ about history, philosophy, science and religion. Well, I don’t know. She is very bright, very committed, and very well read, but not many people’s ideas are as big as the Bible’s ideas. She wrote a song called ‘Kerjillions of Stars’ in which she sings:

If I were a queen for a day
I’d give the ugly people all the money
I’d rewrite the book of love
I’d make if funny

That sounds quite appealing, although I don’t think we could call it a Big Idea. A lot of people have enjoyed imagining what they would do if they ran the world; her idea is more endearing than most. It wouldn’t work, though. We know that. It’s just an attractive fantasy.

She sings ‘I’d rewrite the book of love.’ That’s the most interesting part of her song. Would you call that a Big Idea? Maybe so, maybe not. We can be sure of one thing, though; not in a million years could any human being come up with the Big Idea that we have in this passage from Philippians today, no matter how brilliant, well-read, or ‘spiritual’ they are. I don’t think a lot of Christian people realise this. We are so used to this Big Idea that we don’t react to it.

For a lot of us, coming to church is sort of routine. It even becomes predictable. We do more or less the same things every Sunday morning and go about our business during the week. We forget that we are here because of a staggeringly new thing that happened two thousand years ago. No scientist or philosopher or religious thinker who ever lived could ever have imagined One God in Three Persons with a Second Person, a Son, who would come into the world to be crucified.

He became like a slave, one who belonged completely to others. Instead of being the boss of us, the Son of God let us be the boss of him. And what happened? We put him to death. Because he let us be boss, he died the death of a slave. That’s what happens when you and I get to be king or queen for a day.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jesus Safe Tender Extreme

From chapter 3 of Jesus Safe Tender Extreme, by Adrian Plass, published by Zondervan 2006

Many years ago when I was on holiday in Denmark with the family, we went to one of those theme parks that offers lots of different rides and activities for children. Bridget went off with our oldest son to do a ‘mum with oldest son’ thing, while I took the other three on a trip down a fast-flowing river in a little round boat. From the beginning this boat felt ominously unstable. Despite stern warnings from me, the two boys started to rock their bodies and leaned down backwards towards the water until, at a point where there was a curve in the river, the boat overturned and my two sons, my four-year-old daughter, and I were thrown into the water.
At this time I was still a non-swimmer, and simply being under the water induced an immediate panic. To make matters worse, my body had somehow become trapped between the rim of the overturned boat and the bank of the river, so that I was unable to reach the surface to draw breath.

I was terrified. Unless I fought free, or someone else helped me, I was likely to drown. I had no idea what had happened to my sons, but because they are strong swimmers, I hoped and assumed that they would have reached the bank with no difficulty. What about Kate? A dreadful knot of ultimate sadness seemed to tie itself around my insides as I speculated on the fate of my darling little daughter.

All to these reactions, the panic, the fear, and the weight of sadness, were perfectly normal ones. The other reaction, the one that happens on that objective level, was completely different. You may find this difficult to believe, and I don’t blame you, but it is quite true.

Down there in the damp darkness, with the weight of all these things pressing on me and no visible prospect of a solution, a very distinct part of my mind was coolly assessing the potential of this situation for eventual use in a literary context. Perhaps a magazine article, or a story that would make some telling point when I was speaking to a group somewhere. Possibly the whole thing could be adapted and absorbed into a fictional project at some point in the future.

The little man with a notebook who lives at the back of my head scribbled busily away, noting with interest the various nuances of panic and fear, the exact sensations that accompany drowning, and the emotions evoked by the imminent loss of those whom you love. He was just on the point of starting a new piece under the heading ‘First Encounters with God’ when I managed to struggle free from my trap. I arrived, gasping, in the life-giving air, to discover that all three of my children were safe, thank God, and the industrious little man nodded interestingly as he flipped over his page and began a new one entitled ‘The Anatomy of Relief.’

As far as I am aware, my spontaneous feelings were not and are not in any way diluted by this objectivity. It is just that my mind seems to have trained itself to be interested, absorbed, and mentally engaged by anything and everything that happens to me, whether those things are good, evil tragic, hilarious, or just plain tedious (tedium can be electrifying, believe me!). When I apply these observations to my writing, I am, hopefully, able to reproduce the responses that occur on a normal level, purely because that heartless little man in my head has taken such comprehensive notes.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The 9 to 5 Window

From chapter 5 of The 9 to 5 Window – how faith can transform the workplace, by Os Hillman, published by Regal 2005.

On January 23, 2005, Victor Yushenko was sworn in as the president of Ukraine. Following his inauguration, Yushenko invited all Ukrainian Christian denominations to join him in public prayer and blessing for the nation. ‘This is a totally new thing for our nation,’ said Sunday Adelaja, pastor of the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All nations, in Kiev, the largest church in Europe. ‘Remember, Ukraine is a former Communist society.’

Yushenko then selected Yulia Timoshenko, a born-again and Spirit-filled believer, as prime minister. At the Oath of Office for the new prime minister on February 3, 2005, President Yushenko again shocked the nation by taking a clear and unprecedented stand against corruption. In his address, Yushenko stated that this government would not steal from the public, would not give or receive bribes and would never use money to shift lobby votes. He promised that he would take full responsibility for the actions of his government and demanded that the principles of openness, transparency and uprightness filter throughout every department and cabinet. ‘No decision should be taken in secret,’ Yushenko said. ‘Everything must be done openly and in public view.’

In her address, Prime Minister Timoshenko made one simple point: ‘Our government has come to the conclusion that Ukraine can never rise on her feet until she bows her knees before Almighty God.’ Shortly thereafter, Timoshenko surprised the members of Parliament by outlining a new program of reform for the nation based upon biblical concepts of national transformation.

When Timoshenko announced the new Ministers of Parliament, ‘We as believers couldn’t help but laugh,’ said Adelaja, ‘because of who was placed at the head of the Ukrainian KGB: Alexander Turshinov. This man, a believer, grew up in a Baptist family during the Communist regime. The top assignment of the KGB at that time was to destroy religion and faith, Baptists and Evangelicals in particular. Now, the head of this dreaded organisation is a man who believes in the very thing they tried to destroy. Yes, God has a sense of humour!’

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Hebrews for Everyone

From pp 77/78 of Hebrews for Everyone, by Tom Wright, published by SPCK 2003

Hebrews 7: 20-28

Many of the parish churches in England have a board somewhere close to the door which lists all the rectors who have had charge of that parish. Often the list begins way back in the eighth or ninth century. Even when it’s only the fifteenth or sixteenth century, so that the church stretches back five or six hundred years rather than over a thousand, it’s still a remarkable feeling to read the names and to think of all those people, some no doubt holier than others, some no doubt wiser than others, who have, as best they could, served the people of that parish, preached God’s word and administered the sacraments.

But where are they now? The answer is obvious; apart from the last one or two, or three or four at the most, they are all dead and gone. They have held office for a time, and are now, we trust, at rest – perhaps some of them in the very churchyard outside the building where we are standing. For the church to continue from generation to generation God has to raise up, again and again, people who will take on the calling to serve. They will pass away in their turn and others will succeed them. And so on.

But supposing, as we stood looking at the list, we discovered that someone had been appointed rector in, say, 1600, and he was still there. Somehow he had escaped the common lot of all the others, and the parish had never needed to replace him, because he was still alive, still a faithful minister of the gospel. An extraordinary and bizarre suggestion, of course – though we would all love to meet such a person, to talk to him about what life had been like for the last 400 years, the things the history books hadn’t told us! But the real significance would come when you considered the question: what would it be like to have someone running the parish for 400 years?

Most church people would shrink from the idea, for the good reason that we know that nobody is perfect. By changing rectors regularly you hope to ensure that different skills are brought to the task, and different failings balanced out. But in this case the people would affirm that they were completely happy with the arrangement. The man was exactly what they needed. No further change was necessary.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Theatre and Incarnation

from chapter 4 of Theatre and Incarnation, by Max Harris, published by Eerdmans 2005 (new edition) –

Dramatic text is not a ‘poem’ but a score for performance in which the audience play an integral part. Consider, by way of lively illustration, the Dada soiree in Zurich, in 1919, directed by Tristan Tzara and attended by an audience expecting to take offense at the Dadaists’ anarchist politics and avant-garde art. A speech on abstract art, a dancer wearing a Cubist-style African mask, and some free-association poems began the evening. The latter drew laughter and a few catcalls. Then, in the words of Hans Richter, ‘all hell broke loose.’ The 20 Dadaists on stage began speaking, singing, whistling, crowing, sighing, stuttering and yodelling, simultaneously and not always in time, the 20 texts that together formed a poeme simultane. The audience responded with ‘shouts, whistles, chanting in unison, laughter…all of which mingled more or less anti-harmoniously with the bellowing of the twenty on the platform.’ Order was temporarily restored by a convenient interval.

The program resumed with an actor cursing both audience and performers, with ‘anti-tunes’ and with dances set to the atonal music of Schoenberg. Then Walter Serner, dressed immaculately as if for a wedding, offered a bouquet of artificial flowers to a headless tailor’s dummy to smell and, sitting astride a chair with his back to the audience, began to read from his own anarchistic credo, "Final Dissolution." ‘The tension in the hall became unbearable. At first it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.’

Soon tense silence gave way to catcalls and then to angry invective. Finally, members of the audience ‘leaped on to the stage,’ brandishing pieces of the centuries-old gallery balustrade, ‘chased Serner into the wings and out of the building, smashed the tailor’s dummy and the chair, and stamped on the bouquet.’

Hans Richter remembers, in the ensuing uproar, a newspaper reporter grasping him by the tie and shouting ‘ten times over, without pausing for breath, "You’re a sensible man normally."’ The performance was stopped, the auditorium lights turned on, and ‘faces distorted by rage gradually returned to normal.’ Richter comments, ‘People were realising that not only Serner’s provocation, but also the rage of those provoked, had something inhuman…and that this had been the reason for Serner’s performance in the first place.’

After a 20-minute interval, the show resumed. The final third included a ballet, in which the ‘pretty faces’ and ‘slender figures’ of the dancers were hidden behind ‘savage Negro masks’ and ‘abstract costumes,’ poems by Serner, and some anti-music ‘which left no tone unturned.’ All was allowed to pass without incident, and this too was part of the intended effect.

Richter boasts, ‘Tzara had organised the whole thing with the magnificent precision of a ring-master marshalling his menagerie of lions, elephants, snakes and crocodiles…the public was tamed. To isolate the performance, in this instance, from its effect on the audience, would mean that the theatrical event itself, ‘as an object of specifically critical judgement,’ would ‘disappear!’

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Full Gospel, Fractured Minds?

From chapter 17 of Full Gospel, Fractured Minds? – a call to use God’s gift of the intellect, by Rick M Nanez, published by Zondervan 2005

It is no secret that most of the leaders in Full Gospel movements have failed to champion the cause of the great books of the ages. Think about it for a moment. When is the last time a book written before 1900 was recommended to you? Can we recall ten or five or even one article in our preferred Full Gospel periodical heralding the praises of Dante, Donne, Doddridge or Dostoevsky, Baxter, Boston or Brooks, Augustine or Anselm, Law or Lancelot Andrews, Sertillanges or St Thomas, Temple or Jeremy Taylor? Or how many hands do we need to count on to calculate the times that our favourite preacher has referred to Flavel, Fenelon, Frost, Plutarch, Pascal, Pound, Woolman or Watts? Furthermore, is it any wonder that few if any Pentecostals have taken possession of prominent positions in the literary world during the last one hundred years?

When comparing the prescribed reading lists of Edwards, Wesley, Spurgeon, Lewis, Sanders, Lloyd-Jones and Tozer with the reading habits of contemporary Full Gospel people, there is much to be desired. The gulf between the great literature of yesteryear and what is popular today is wide and ever increasing. In addition to the hundreds of pastors and laity that I have spoken with about their reading habits, and above and beyond the numerous church and pastoral libraries I have perused, I have also performed various surveys regarding the same.

On three occasions, I have collected data from Full Gospel leaders and pastors. One question on the surveys asked that the participants name the most effectual Christian classic that they had read. Among those listed the most often were: The Left Behind series, My Utmost for His Highest, The Cross and the Switchblade, In His Steps, The Pursuit of God, Hind's Feet in High Places, The Late Great Planet Earth, and, Piercing the Darkness. One-third of those polled could not think of one work that they considered a ‘classic.’ In addition, an overwhelming 96% attested to exclusively reading volumes written in the twentieth century. Among the most commonly mentioned, all-time favourite Christian authors were Chuck Swindoll, Janette Oke, Max Lucado, Frank Peretti, Watchman Nee, John Maxwell, James Dobson, Neil Anderson, and Tim LaHaye. Each of these writers offer aid to today’s Christian; however, I would suspect that many of them would point to authors of antiquity as their cerebral and spiritual meat and drink. Why?

It is truly tragic that none of the premium theological or devotional literature of the church’s first 1,800 years showed up anywhere on the surveys of ‘Pentecostal Reading Habits.’ If Spirit-filled believers herald their Full Gospel status, they should at least be compelled to show an interest in the way that God has deposited his truth, via the fullness of this Body, throughout the eons of past Christian centuries.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Pressure’s Off

From chapter 11 of The Pressure’s Off – there’s a new way to live, by Larry Crabb, published by CWR 2002

The Spirit of Christ is always nudging us toward the New Way if we’re not on it and always nudging us farther along if we are. In every circumstance, at every moment, He’s stirring our affection for God until He makes it the strongest passion in our hearts.

When an ex-husband poisons the mind of a teenage son against his mother, she has every right to cry, ‘Foul!’ She’s the one who changed every diaper, worked two jobs because he wouldn’t provide support, carted her boy to every game and stayed when she could to cheer him on, and spent countless evenings drilling him on spelling and math to get him ready for the next day in school.

She must not be faulted for hurting terribly. What’s happened is unfair and it hurts, and perhaps even more than the divorce. The second shoe dropping usually feels worse than the first. Her desire to see her relationship with her son restored deserves support. Unless it rises to the level of a first-place passion.

If that happens, and it almost always will, she’ll find herself living the Old Way. She may not realise this, but she’ll be following a spirit other than God’s. God’s Spirit will be quenched. There will be no peace, no rest, until the Better Life she demands is given. And then it will be the peace and rest of this world.

When something terrible goes wrong in our lives, the first question we typically ask is, ‘What should I do?’

‘To accomplish what?’ the Spirit asks.

‘Why, to win back my son’s affection, of course. I’ve never felt such pain. I must know what I can do to make it happen.’

Counsellors and friends who compassionately offer ideas for reaching that objective are working at cross-purposes with God. Spiritual directors are more on track when they encourage quiet listening for whatever the Spirit may be saying. They can hear Him whispering to the distraught mother. They want her to hear Him too.

‘I know your pain. The Son felt it when His own people turned against Him. But He found His gladness in staying close to the Father. Let Me direct you into His presence. He is wonderful, and He is enough to free you to love your son."

Perhaps God’s Word will penetrate the mother’s heart so that she hears Him say, ‘You will be my treasured possession.’ He offers us relationship in suffering so that we can learn to value intimacy over blessing.

The Spirit is constantly nudging us toward the New Way and away from the Old, toward the Better Hope and away from demanding the Better Life. This first lesson I’m learning includes a radical and wonderful truth: Pursuing my deepest pleasure and moving in rhythm with the Spirit both take me in the same direction – toward Christ! Self-interest and worship go together if worship comes first.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Body Broken

From chapter 4 of The Body Broken – answering God’s call to love one another, by Robert Benson, published by Waterbrook Press 2003

The next afternoon we three Protestants [at the Retreat] went off to say our prayers and to take the Eucharist. The dozen or so Catholics who were also attending the workshop went off to do the same.

We were a little more than halfway through the liturgy, at the part at which the Prayer of Humble Access is said, when I began to hear murmuring voices from somewhere. "We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, o merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness," we were saying. "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table."

I thought to myself that I sure wished whoever was outside in the hallway would not presume to talk so loudly while others were taking the Eucharist. The voices were not so loud that I could hear what the speakers were saying, but they were loud enough to be distracting. As the murmurings began to become annoying, I found it harder and harder to be as pious and reverent as I felt that I ought to be. Here I was being holy, and some noisy crowd was in the hallway catching up on the news.

In the liturgical practice of the Eucharist, there is a moment in which someone or everyone together offers an Alleluia. The ritual varies from place to place, and in some places the congregation will sing a chorus of a song as the bread and the wine and the Table are being prepared.

It turned out that the murmuring was actually the sound of the Catholics in the church on the other side of the altar. At about the same time that they began to sing their Alleluia, we were just about ready to sing ours over on our side. My friends and I looked at one another and just grinned, and the murmuring went from annoying to holy. Then the singer in our group – the other two of us are not really singers at all – recognised the Catholics’ tune and began to sing the same song in a kind of round or response with the people on the other side of the altar.

To be sure, it was a sweet moment for us all, even though we could not see one another. It was a moment in which one could believe that what binds us together and what we hold in common is more powerful than what keeps us apart.

The overlapping of Alleluias only happened the one day that week. After that, both groups, probably to keep from disturbing each other, did not sing their Alleluias anymore. Instead, each spoke them quietly and kept them to themselves. Perhaps had we done it all week, the walls between us might have begun tumbling down. Such a thing happened in Jericho once; it might have happened in Cincinnati if we had tried.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

And You Visited Me

From chapter 6 of And You Visited Me – a true story of Death Row friendships, by Penny Wheat, published by Monarch 2005

It’s true that no one close to me has ever been murdered; no doubt, if they were I should be full of rage and hurt and vengeance. I thank God that I have not been tested in that way. He knows our limitations and will not press us beyond our endurance. However, I do know of two deaths in particular which have touched me. Hilda Murrell was an anti-nuclear campaigner and a Shropshire rose-grower – I recall seeing the sign bearing her family name hanging over the entrance to the nursery. Hilda was something of a kindred spirit: we were both passionate gardeners, artists, music lovers and campaigners. As an opponent of nuclear power for many years, I had written countless letters to lobby for the closure of the industry, as had Hilda. She was a woman of great determination and strong convictions; she had taught herself nuclear physics in order to be able to understand the issues and answer her critics. Her concern was for future generations, and her unselfishness touched me. She died in 1984, just before she was due to present a paper at the Sizewell inquiry. The circumstances of her death were later explored in a play called Who Killed Hilda Murrell?

A second death was that of Willie MacRae, a Glasgow lawyer. Willie was a leading light in the Scottish National party and a fervent anti-nuclear campaigner. His unexplained death, almost a year to the day after Hilda’s, bore striking resemblances to hers. These two were people I hugely admired, and I corresponded with a nephew of Hilda’s and a friend of Willie’s after their deaths. Thus I had another perspective, albeit at secondhand, of the effects of violent death. I knew something of the strong emotions stirred up by such a loss.

I was also deeply affected by the [tv] film In the Name of the People. This was based on the true story of a remarkable couple, the Murphys, whose daughter Jenny was brutally murdered by John Burke. In the film, after Burke’s conviction, Jenny’s mother campaigns tirelessly to ensure that the State of Colorado puts him to death, but over time her husband’s views modify. He visits Burke in jail in Denver, and becomes even more uneasy about his execution. He persuades his wife to visit the man, and the film captures the harrowing occasion when they sit face to face for the first time and confront the reality of what Burke has done and the impact his actions have had on all their lives.

Burke also had one daughter, and pleads with the couple to take her into their home after his death, as there is no one else to care for the child. The film ends with him strapped to the gurney in the death chamber. Burke has asked Mrs Murphy to witness the end, to give her closure. As he lies there, in the final seconds, he mouths, ‘I’m sorry,’ and she mouths back, ‘I forgive you.’ The couple leave the prison with the young daughter of the man who killed their only child. It would be hard to imagine a finer example of forgiveness and reconciliation.