Monday, 31 May 2010

Money, money, money

Ug was a caveman with ideas above his station. He loved painting and even though he said it himself, he was quite good at it. Of course there wasn't a lot of competition or others work to compare with. But those Bison looked pretty realistic - all his friends agreed.

Problem was, painting Bison didn't get the family fed. "If you spent as much time catching Bison as drawing them, we'd have plenty to eat" his female cave-partner reminded him. That's when he had his life-changing idea. (Not to find a new female cave-partner, though he was sorely tempted "A nagging female cave partner is like a dripping tap" he used to say. Given that taps hadn't been invented, it wasn't the powerful simile he had been hoping for).

No, this was the idea he came up with. he called it:  'I do something for you that you want and you do something for me that I want'. Marketing and slogans were still several millenia into the future, but it caught on. Ug got into interior design, painting other cave-dwellers walls, whilst they gave him some Bison in exchange. Which was fine until Grunt, one of Ug's neighbours, desperately wanted a Bison painting on his wall, just like the Jones's had on theirs. Trouble was, Grunt didn't have any Bison to exchange. What Grunt had was funny stories. The way he told the one about the Bison trampling his female-cave partner had them all in stitches. Well it would have done if they'd had any stitches. Sadly though, you couldn't eat laughter so keeping up with the Jones's would have to wait.

Until in fact, the invention of money. Money provides a way of valuing your service, independently of the service itself. It frees the whole system of the need for what you do to be directly useful to the person you want something from. Grunt could have been paid to tell jokes by those who wanted a laugh at the end of a hard days Bison painting. He could have then bought some Bison from the hard-working Bison catchers who went home to rest in their beautifully painted caves. Money is a wonderful tool enabling diversity of production and freeing many to perform tasks and roles that could not otherwise exist.

She sat, shivering in the mouth of the cave. The fire had gone out and the flames no longer illuminated the pictures painted on the walls. The sun was setting and the cold night was encroaching. It was obvious that the men were not returning, that once again, there had been no catch. Her body wanted to cry, but had no strength to do so. She knew then that this was the last night. That she wouldn't make it to the camp tomorrow. So inside and quietly, she wept. They had no money they had said. She hadn't asked, hadn't begged for money. What was money? What she needed, what she had pleaded for, was food. Food for the baby she had almost died giving birth to.

How did the tool become the master? How can we look someone in the eye and say 'you will have to die, we do not have enough of this man-made object that is supposed to serve us'.

Isn't this obscene?

We have a heap of food at our feet and a starving person by our side. But there is this impenetrable barrier between the person and the food. Lack of money. Lack of a tool. Money isn't a god with the power to say 'live' or 'die'. It isn't a real obstacle, it is only an obstacle because we define it as such. And all the time, the food rots and the person dies. Our solution is not to dethrone the new god, not to sweep aside the illusory obstacle. Our solution, such as it is, is to fund-raise, to acknowledge our subservience to the new god by recognising its omnipotence. Our answer is to serve the new god with more zeal.

This is absurd.

We laugh at the stories of primitve caveman. I suspect they would look at our 'civilisation' and pity us.

Friday, 28 May 2010


I walk to work two or three times a week. I had a look at a map and realised that there was a pleasanter and shorter route. First time I tried it, it took almost three songs longer than normal. (I like that playlist on my iPod). I looked again at the map and made some adjustments. Today it took two songs longer. This will come as no surprise to many of you. When we're driving and I say 'oh, I know a short-cut' there are cries from the family, pleading that we take the longer way round. They know from painful experience how long the short-cut might take. Never mind a couple of songs, you could fit the entire works of The Boss into some of my short-cuts.

The problem extends beyond geography. Early in my faith journey, I was in a church full of young-people of my age who were much further on in their own journies. I wanted to be like them, to be seen like them, to have the same opportunities as them. So I took a short cut. I learned how to look the part of a mature young Christian. I knew what songs to sing, how to lift up my hands (radical in those pre-Charismatic Movement days), I learned a lot about the Bible, how to pray 'professional sounding' prayers. On the outside I looked great (metaphorically speaking - flares and kipper ties - whose idea were thay?). Trouble was, it was only superficial, all about what was seen. There was no real holiness, just the legalistic impression of it. So when the foundations were tested, there was nothing there. When the wall was needed to hold real weight, turned out it wasn't structurally sound.

When the 'lost son' comes to his senses it says that "he started out from the place where he was". I wondered about that and other similar statements in the Bible. Where else would you start from? Then I realised. It's what I've spent a lifetime doing... denying where I really am, starting out from where I'd like to be, from where I'd like others to think I am.... But I keep discovering the simple truth. There aren't any short-cuts to Christ-likeness.  At first I found that distressing. I felt ashamed that I wasn't further on, that I'd let my saviour down. I knew sin mattered, that it has dismaying consequences, that it kills and ripples on into the future.

Then I learned something new. Jesus is really, really patient. Yes sin matters, yes it has effects - but these can be mitigated, overcome, redeemed. And in the meantime, He takes all the time it needs to patiently dig out the weeds, turn and prepare the ground, plant and water the seeds, tend and protect the shoots, train and prune for a mighty harvest.

I can breathe again. It doesn't all have to be finished this week. Or even this life. The Holy Spirit of God chooses what to work on next and gently encourages to action. He uses scripture, other believers, lifes circumstances to refine me. He doesn't rush the job, doesn't nag impatiently about all the other stuff there is left to do. But as a master craftsman, with inordinate pride in his work, He takes His time and makes something of exquisite value, worthy of the price that has been paid.

So lets not start from the wrong place - from the place of guilt, from the place of condemnation, from the place of false-expectation.

Let's start from where we are and avoid the short-cuts.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Good News

You're on yet another course on evangelism (hard to credit how many courses you need to demonstrate to a friend that the God who loves you also loves them). But there you are, learning amazing techniques (such as being a friend and talking to your friend) and in the midst of this divine revelation comes the phrase "You should hate the sin, not the sinner". And it seems so credible at the time. It gives permission to be self-righteous and judging at the same time as being holy and loving - a winner all round:
'Of course, I don't hate you, I just hate the thing you do. It won't affect the way I relate to you, I'll just grit my teeth behind my evangelical smile whenever you do that or talk about it'. 
The truth is of course that the poor person who is the beneficiary of this 'loving' response knows that you are gritting your teeth, knows that behind the smile is disapproval and feels judged, belittled or patronised - or on a particularly good day, all three. Fortunately session four of the course (the one just after lunch that no-one remembers) teaches us how to deal with the offense our poor witnessee feels.

The bottom line is that if you disapprove of the things I do, you by implication disapprove of me. After all, it is me who decided to do whatever it is that offends you. It is my worldview, my values, my background that led to the choice to so behave. You can't artificially seperate out me from my actions. So if you hate the sin, you are at some level hating the sinner. People are sensitive to hypocrisy, to unspoken criticism, they know what's going on, precisely because our actions ultimately belie what is going on underneath. Anyone who has ever lived within an atmosphere of unspoken criticism will know how crippling this can be.

'By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another'. I don't think evangelism, bringing good news, has anything to do with accusation, explicitly or implied. It's about a community demonstrating what God is like. His pure motives, His sacrificial service, His extraordinary hospitality, His absolute self-control, His grace, His mercy, His justice and permeating it all, His love. That's our unique calling.  It's about a group of people being distinctively different to the world around them. Different in the same way that God is different. Holy as He is holy. Loving rather than accusing. Loving rather than hating, Loving rather than self-promoting. Behaving lovingly towards yourself, towards others, towards God. That's the heart of holiness - being distinctively different.It's what church is - a distinctive, open community representing who God is (a Triune loving community, open to us).

The call to holiness then is for those within the community of faith. For those in that community, there is both an expectation and an urgency to cooperate with the Holy Spirit so that minds can be renewed and lives transformed. Not because piety is itself a goal, but that collectively we are called to represent Christ to a world that does not know Him. It is as we respond lovingly to one another in God honouring ways that the character and life of Jesus is made visible. It is therefore of profound importance that our lives reflect that. Otherwise people receive a false view of God.

It's how Jesus lives it in the Gospels: The word of knowledge for the Samaritan woman, but no judging. The word of encouragement and welcome to the cheating tax-collector, but no accusation. Words in the sand for the woman caught in adultery, but no condemnation. Yes, we see Jesus angry with those who should have known better, those to whom God had already revealed Himself - and especially the religious leaders - the ones who should be the witnessing community. But to those who the community is for, who had no shepherd, to the poor, the marginalised, the judged, He brought only good news.

So in the church; discipline, encouragement to Godly living, iron sharpening iron. Holiness, repentance, confession, accountability so that those outside might see God and be attracted in. To whom much is given, much is expected.

To those as yet outside the community; welcome, open hearts, hospitality, selflessness, compassion, no accusation or threat.

To everyone; grace, peace and unconditional love.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


I am an ENTJ. It's a Myers-Briggs personality type indicator label, not a disease. If you're familiar with MTBI then you've got an immediate insight into me. In the Belbin Team Role test, I'm a strong 'shaper' and 'monitor-evaluator' - again, labels that give a quick insight into some aspect of who I am. Not all labels are as positive -  I'm also labelled as untrustworthy to teach at most CU's in the UK as I can't sign the UCCF statement of faith (why is the subject of a different blog). That's nothing new mind, back when I first pastored a church, I remember going to a BU meeting (I was a good boy then) where people who were in leadership without having been to Bible College (like me) were labelled as 'pretenders'. Forgive and forget eh Major.

As the song almost says: 'any label will do'. 

Last blog, I had a bit of a rant about hypocrisy. It was sparked by an article in which homosexuals were being judged as sinners. (for Bono's take on this, click here). Now, my guess is that most people who read this blog are already somewhat sympathetic to my sometimes less than traditional views. But in general, I know that there will be many who would want to draw me to one side and say 'of course we shouldn't judge, but you do believe that it is wrong don't you?'.....the point of such a question of course is to label. Am I a proper Bible believing Christian or am I, (whisper it quietly), a liberal.

If we can assign a label it avoids the necessity having to know the person, to engage with the debate - instead we can decide everything we need to know about the person on the basis of the label. In this case, a liberal would be dangerous to listen to - and unnecessary, because we conservatives have everything already sewn up.

Is it possible to live life label free? Free from the labels others so quickly hang round our knecks? Free from the labels of parents, authorities, religious leaders, those we love, those who despise us, the enemy of our souls, our-selves?

Actually, there is one label I will own. 'Beloved of God'. It's the caption of our lives, the banner unfurled over every one of us. So, laugh in the face of all other labels, hold your head up high whoever you are. I recognise you, I know you. 'Beloved of God'.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Rant against hypocrisy

Why are we so focussed on judgment? Judging others that is. Ashamed, I read the article today on how Evangelical Christians (I count myself as one) are railing against homosexuality in Africa. The result of course is not people coming to faith in Christ, nor a change in what the preachers see as sinful behaviour, but the marginalisation and persecution of part of the community.

When did we decide that the good news was best communicated through a judgmental attitude? And when did we decide that we were in a position to judge?

The truth is that we pillaged their resources, colonised their lands, enslaved their people. We continue to  fight proxy wars in their nations, play politics for their oil and pay lip service to their culture. Having despoiled the earth we then insist they meet our 'green' standards even whilst we consume 90% of the resources, leaving them impoverished. And having done all that, with breath-taking arrogance, whist oil bleeds into the ocean, we self-righteously pronounce that our plenty is a sign of God blessing our goodness, whilst their tragedy is a result of God's judgment on their sin. In this context, do we really think that a fair God is going judge them more harshly or quickly than us? Which bit of  "to whom much is given, much is expected" did we not understand?

It was never about behaviour, but in whose world is a lack of self-control leading to gluttony a more fundamental flaw than a lack of self-control leading to promiscuity? God cares how we behave because behaviour points to what is broken in our lives. He longs to make whole our brokeness, not modify our behaviour. It's relationship with us that motivates His concern, not adherance to standards. Moreover, it is His repsonsibility to convince each individual as to what for them is sin. Our responsibility is to urgently deal with the planks revealed to be in our own eye. Then we can help others (note, help, not criticise or judge) remove the specks that God has revealed to them. So God cares how we behave, but do we really still believe that we can be saved by works of law-keeping? By living to certain 'holy' standards? Do we really believe that God is a rule-watcher, a cosmic time & motion analyst, stop-watch and rule book in hand, longing for us to transgress some obscure rule so that He can smite us?

Is the first thought in God's mind wrath at broken rules or compassion towards broken hearts?

Yet the message we actually deliver to so many who are marginalised is this: God hates you. Your behaviour disgusts Him. That's why you are marginalised, in His eyes you deserve it (and as His servants, in ours too). Nonetheless, Jesus has twisted His arm to withold His anger for now, but it's on a knife-edge, He's actually looking for any excuse to vent His wrath. So you'd better start behaving, otherwise not only will it continue to be bad for you now, but there's an eternity in hell waiting.

This is a travesty of the Gospel.

By all means lets tell the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised about Jesus. Tell them that like them, He has first hand experience of religious leaders who claimed they knew best. Tell them that he was despised and spat upon as well. Tell them that He too was judged for His unacceptable behaviour. Tell them that he also was derided, beaten up and imprisoned by the authorities. Tell them that He was illegally tried by the courts. Tell them that He was murdered by the mob. Tell them that he came and experienced all of that so that he could fully share their burdens. Tell them that He came because He loved them, irrespective of their behaviour. Tell them that He understands their plight, genuinely feels their pain, their despair, their rage. Tell them that this omnipotent love & rage could not be imprisoned even by death. Tell them that He now lives to lead them into true freedom, to be all that they are. Tell them that He brings hope, healing, liberty, justice. Tell them that He comes to hold to account their oppressors. Tell them that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Tell them that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth about God. Tell them that they can personally know the redeeming love of Jesus, without the need of priests, without the need of experts. Tell them your own experience of that love. Tell them how you were convinced by the Holy Spirit, how He led you to turn away  from your presumption that your way and understanding was right. Tell them that you are desperately sorry for past arrogance. Tell them how His love for you has stirred a compassion in your heart.

Then live it in their presence, sharing their suffering, their isolation, demonstrating the love of God.

But don't tell them how to live, we don't have the right, we don't have the credibility, we don't have that call.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Door Pushers & Fleece Layers

How do you make those life changing decisions? What career to pursue, who to marry, where to live, what to have for lunch?

If you're not a Christian it's pretty straightforward - either you have a fatalistic worldview which means it's all fixed by fate or some dictatorial supreme being, or a humanistic worldview which relies on the evidence and rational decision making.

But if you are a believer, you will want to make decisions out of your relationship with a God who loves you. Basing them not only what you see with your physical senses but also what is revealed through scripture, through revelation, through the exercise of spiritual gifts. In short, it may be a whole lot more satisfying and fruitful, but it's also a lot more complicated!

But not as complicated as some folk make it. They're the 'door pushers and fleece layers' from the title. As is often the case with this kind of received wisdom, there is very little scriptural foundation for either. Revelation 3:8 for door pushing, the story of Gideon for fleeces. The former is a letter to a specific church in specific circumstances, the latter a special dispensation to a terrified man that God was training to be a mighty warrior. Not the ideal basis for making general patterns for ordinary living.

So how do we guard against falling for 'accepted wisdom'? (And how do we make Godly choices...?). Well, to the first, one thing to do is ask 'what would God have to be like for this to be true?'. Is such a view compatible with what we know about God from the broad sweep of scripture?

Let's work it out: A God who communicated His will by routinely performing miracles or by supernaturally blocking or opening paths would be a God who was focussed on the inanimate or on His own power. A change to the weather pattern or the basics of physics to make things wet or not, the imposition of His will on individuals or circumstances that would otherwise have blocked your choice. Yet what we understand from scripture is that God longs for personal, intimate relationship. Does an approach to guiding us based on power, third parties and inanimate objects seem a likely route to that kind of relationship?

You and your wife / husband / fiance(e) / boyfriend / girlfriend / best mate (delete as applicable) are choosing where to go on holiday. You have decided where is best. Your significant other is trying to work out what you have in mind. He / She (do you ever wish you hadn't started an analogy...) phones the travel agent to book for Skegness. You (having chosen the Bahama's) listen in from the next room until you realise you're about to be booked in to Skeggy then at the crucial moment, you cut the phone wire. Door closed, job done.

Wouldn't it be more relational (and conducive to a better holiday) to sit down and talk about where you'd both like to go? Do we actually believe that God is playing some kind of cosmic hide & seek with us? Now you see Him, now you don't. It leads to all sorts of problems. You really want something, but you want God's endorsement. How hard do you push that door? Doesn't it say somewhere that you should knock and keep knocking? So we knock a bit harder. Then a bit harder. Then we get the axe out and chop it down. 'Ooh, look, the door opened, it must be God's will'.

Why don't we be radical. You want to know what's next? Ask Him. Out of loving trust, ask Him. Being genuinely open to His suggestion, ask Him. How does He answer? Well, what's your personal preference for communication? Words, images, feelings? What is your personality - are you more introverted or extraverted? Would it not be likely that a wise, wonderful, loving God intent on closer relationship would choose to communicate in a way that perfectly suits you? Isn't that what we see in scripture? To a frightened man, by means that demonstrate His power, to men who love dreams - through dreams. To a woman who had men screaming for her blood, by a gentle man quietly writing in the sand. To a distraught woman, with a resurrection hug.

He loves you and longs to speak. Why not go talk to Him now?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Lies, damned lies and some translations...

My Bible is falling apart - even the masking tape that is holding it together now needs repairing. (reminds me of the slogan I once saw - 'Bibles that are falling apart are generally read by people who aren't' - I should have listed slogans like that as one of my pet peeves.). Anyway, what to buy?  Our Seniors kindly gave me a Waterstone's voucher for speaking at their Birthday Rally, so now I have the opportunity...

There's such an array isn't there? As well as the basic versions, there are a million variations on them (really, I counted...). The Bloke's Bible, The Women's Bible, The Christian Growth Bible, The I Have No Clue Which Bible to Buy Bible. Some have so many notes and additional material, it's almost impossible a) to carry it and b) to actually find scripture in it. Why rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth -  they seem to ask - when you can have an army of preachers ready to assault you from the pages with their wisdom. Don't for goodness sake make your own mind up, here's some pre-digested food specially tailored to your unique circumstances o reader of the 'Life Application provided it's on a Thursday and you like the colour pink and by the way did you know God was a vegeterian' Bible - now available with it's own trailer.... How many versions do we need? It's like the Bread aisle at the supermarket - so much choice when so many have no bread to eat. So many versions when so many people don't have anything in their own language.

But I digress. What I'm really concerned with today is the built in bias of most of our translations.

All translation is interpretation. No-one comes to the task as a completely detached objective person with no preconceived ideas. When a translator (or team) face a word that has multiple meanings or possible nuances, they will inevtiably be influenced by their existing understanding of what the original intended to communicate.

Let me give you an example: The NIV has the following for Romans 8:6-9

6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace;
7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 
9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.

You will see that on three occassions the word 'control' is used, yet a literal translation gives:

6. For to be flesh minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
7. Because the flesh mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
8.So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
9. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.

The word 'control' has been added changing the meaning from two states of mind to the implication of some external force exerting 'control' - if I am driving the car, I am in control of the journey, the passengers may object, but whilst I am in control, their choices are null and void. So the NIV has a sinful nature controlling those in whom the Spirit does not dwell. Conversely, if the Spirit does dwell in you, you are controlled by the Spirit. In either case it makes the person seem like the passive victim of external, irresistable influence. This strikes at the heart of our view of what God is like and how he works in the world.

Yet the original text makes no such inference:  the insertion of the word ‘control’ reinforces a view of how God exercises His sovereignty: Because God could impose His will at all time and in all places, it is easy to presume that He must act in this way. Yet without the addition of this word, the passage is in line with what I believe the weight of the Bible points to: A God who has invested great significance in us and who genuinely gives us free moral choice, for which we are held accountable. He accomplishes His plans and keeps His promises through the freely made choices of those who follow Him. He is infinitely creative in His use of unGodly choices and infinitely capable of redeeming those choices when we repent. He shapes, He weaves, He brings things to ends He has determined - but He dosesn’t micro-manage, He doesn’t control.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of the NIV (although I don't personally use it) - I think it is the nature of translation that the pre-existing worldview of the translators will seep through. My concern is that the readers and those who use the translation for teaching should be made more aware of the inherent bias. A ‘health warning’ on the cover perhaps… ‘This translation can seriously damage your view of God’

So what did I get? An NRSV (for old times sake) and a New Living Translation (recommended by friends in our housegroup). Whatever, the more and wider you read it, the more God's Spirit has with which to lead you into all truth.

See you soon - I've got a good book to read...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Sovereign Lord, Loving Friend

He's getting on and he's in ill-health. But he has a clear call from God and he's convinced it isn't complete yet. In comes the big-name minister with a cast-iron reputation for words of knowledge that strike to the heart of situations. 'Sort out your affairs' he says, 'Say your goodbyes,  tonight you're going to die'. Not what you had in mind, not what you hoped to hear. He knows the Psalms of course: 'In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.' He might be expected on that basis to lie down and die. God knows the days, knows the plans. The great prophet Isaiah has spoken, the future is fixed. Time to die.

But of course that's not how he responds, because he knows that's not how it works. 'I'm not done yet, there's a job to do - God gave it to me. I'm going to pray and see if He will change His mind'. Now Isaiah could respond by saying 'Don't be ridiculous, I've told you what is going to happen - it's fixed, your days are all written and you've got to the last page.' But he doesn't. He too knows that's not how it works. So Hezekiah prays and God reveals to Isaiah that on the third day he will be healed and live for a further 15 years.

The book has been re-written.

So what does David mean in this psalm? Well firstly, let's remember that psalms are poetry, they use all sorts of literary devices in order to reveal truth about God. We understand something of the character of God when David says that He is a shepherd, but we don't believe that He actually has a staff and crook! Similarly, whatever David means, it isn't that the future is fixed: After Bathsheba gives birth to the son she and David have conceived, he prays and fasts knowing that what looks like a fixed plan might yet be changed, that the child might be healed and live.

In the light of the whole of scripture, perhaps psalm 139 says this:

God has great dreams for us. As he considered our potential from that first conception moment, all His thoughts were for our good and the good that we could be. In His mind He mapped out futures that we could enjoy together. An array of wonderful possibilities beyond our grasp.

As we grow and give permission to Him, He examines our heart and mind, becoming intimately understanding of our ways, to the point that even before we speak, He knows what we will say. Out of that relationship He reveals His dreams for us. We still have freedom to choose those paths or not, but wherever we go, He stays with us. Even if we drag Him through hell, He will not leave us. What is more, He is infinitely creative to find new routes to our destination from where we have wandered.

Then, as we walk in the paths He reveals, even as our enemies seek to deflect us, we have confidence that God is wise beyond our comprehension, powerful beyond our understanding, to protect us and bring about the plans that we have worked towards.

There is mystery - we cannot grasp or comprehend the magnificense of God's plans, His ability to see them through, often despite us. We cannot fully understand the depth of love that tenaciously holds on when we drag a holy God through the experience and consequence of sin.

But there's also knowledge - knowing that we are loved enough to have the dignity of choice. Loved by a God who is so beyond our comprehension that He is well able to handle the uncertainty of our choices. Well able to redeem our mistakes. Big enough to dynamically adapt His plans, His dreams to fit the new circumstances. Loving enough not to insist on His own way. Sovereign enough to weave all of this into the picture He declared from the beginning.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Back to the Future

So, there he is, minding his own business. Well, as much as you can when you're under occupation by the most terrifying dictator on the planet. Then God comes along and says 'go to the capital city, confront the tyrant, tell him that in 40 days, I will show him who really has power'.

Unsurprisingly, Jonah declines the offer. But not because he is afraid. But because the nature of prophesy is no mystery to him.

Jonah knows that what God has prophesied is not a peeking into the future to declare what He has seen will happen, but a warning of what can yet be avoided. And Jonah does not want the Ninevites to avoid it. He wants the wrath of God to fall, He wants to see revenge for his family, his friends, his people who have been raped, murdered, exiled. He doesn't want to warn them, he wants to witness their destruction.

It's a harrowing reality and we, like Jonah, need to come to the point of trusting God to ultimately judge fairly. We know how the story goes. Jonah ends up having a whale of a time and after that diversion brings the prophecy. Remarkably, the people from the King to the lowest slave repent and God witholds His anger. Which makes Jonah angry. 'You see, that's why I didn't want to come. I knew that if they repented, you would not do what you said you would'.

He knew that prophecy is not about a God fast-forwarding to a point in the future followed by a quick rewind to let some prophet know what will happen. It's not a fore-telling, it's a telling forth of God's character and nature. 'This is what God is like and unless you respond to that, the following will happen'. Even when the 'if' or 'unless' are missed out, the prophets knew they were implied.

There'd be no point in prophecy otherwise. If what was being prophesied was now inevitable, there would be no point in telling anyone (unless you took perverse pleasure in saying 'told you so' as calamity struck). 'In 40 days you will die'. Yup, they did.

'Woah' I hear you cry. But some prophecy is really specific. Surely for that to come true God must have had a peek at what to us is the future? 'Hmmm' I respond (playing for time as usual).

We've seen in a previous blog that all observation affects the outcome. So, you could guarantee a future outcome by looking to see what happened - but looking would affect the outcome. What happens in the future must be based on what happens now and if you tell someone what to them is going to happen, that will influence what they do, potentially changing the future you foresaw - meaning that what you told them would happen may result in it not happening. Except of course that you did see it, which must mean they didn't act on your message, thus making the message pointless... If you followed that you've probably had more wine than is good for you... Maybe an example will help...

Fred buys a Jag. (Can you be jealous of a character you just made up?) God sees Fred's future. It involves a horrible Jag related accident (I'm not jealous anymore). God speaks to Fred in a dream 'don't buy the Jag, it will only lead to trouble'. There are now only two options. Either Fred heeds the warning (which presumably is what God hoped would happen) and doesn't buy the Jag - in which case God did not see him buy it, making the prophecy redundant... Or, he goes ahead and buys it, making the prophecy redundant (well pointless at least).

Deep breath. So Mr Smarty Pants, get out of that one. Well, for what it's worth, here goes.

God expresse His nature (what He can do) through His character (what He chooses to do). The Lord - (power, knowledge, reach) is expressed through His character -  my shepherd. His power isn't used to control, but to shepherd. His knowledge is not used to trip us up but to guide our paths. His reach is not to find us out for punishment but to seek us for salvation.

Sometimes, for the sake of real and meaningful relationship, might He choose not to do things which are within His ability? So even where there are things which He could guarantee through knowing them, might it be that instead, He chooses to bring them into being by weaving our free, unknown choices into the ends He desires?

Do we think God is big enough, clever enough, wise enough, loving enough to do that? Rather than guarantee the future by reading the last, already fixed page, might He not guarantee an outcome because He knows that He can take the good choices His people make along with all the ungodly ones and weave them ultimately to that end? Might He not be able to guarantee the destination without minutely controlling the route?

God promised Israel a land. It was an 11 day march from the Red Sea to the land of promise. Did it have to take 40 years? Could it have been less painful?

'One of you will betray me'. Could it have been Peter? Was it possible for Judas to see Mary's worship and allow his heart to be melted, for us now to read of his repentance and how he was instrumental in establishing the church?

Not by might, nor by power - but by my spirit says the Lord.

More tomorrow. (That's an aspiration not a guarantee based on my certain knowledge of the future obviously).

Saturday, 15 May 2010

It's A Mystery

I like mysteries. When I was a child we used to go on a lot of 'mystery tours'. We'd get up early, get a bus into town and wait excitedly for the coach. We'd have a list of all the places we'd like to go; zoo, seaside, funfair.... eventually the coach would arrive and we'd pile on to set off on the adventure. Eagerly we'd look at the road signs trying to predict the route and ultimately the destination. We needn't have bothered. It was always Barnard Castle. Turns out the mystery wasn't a mystery at all.

According to that famous religious figure (Madonna) 'Life is a Mystery' and 'Shakespeare In Love' had it as a theme - click for a  brief clip.   What's more, I hear lots of people use 'mystery' when they are talking about God. Now I agree that there is a lot about God that we are not designed to understand. How exactly can He be three and yet one? Physically, how did He create the universe? Practically, how can He give His full attention to every individual? With regards the attributes of God (the 'omni' things) we are not equipped nor intended to know how God does what He does - it is and will remain a mystery, hidden. But what about aspects regarding His character? His love and the way that allows choice. His justice and the way He exercises mercy, the way in which He exercises sovereignty without manipulating or controlling, how prayer works, how God redeems....

My worry is that we too casually use 'mystery' as an excuse for holding mutually exclusive ideas about God that leads to either confusion for ourselves or a lack of credibility for those we are trying to reach. So whilst there are clearly areas that are hidden, that are mysteries surrounding God's nature that are far beyond us, the history of God is one of revelation. He creates the universe through the metaphor of speech, the first thing He creates is that which dispels hiddeness - light. Almost every use of the word 'mystery' in scripture relates to something that was hidden has now been revealed:

Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel; "Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries"; I want you to understand this mystery; Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages; Behold! I tell you a mystery; making known to us the mystery of his will; how the mystery was made known to me by revelation; When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ; to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery; the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

So in these next few blogs, I want to explore some classic areas that are often seen as 'mysteries' but which I believe God has revealed.

There is of course one outstanding mystery that is forever beyond our understanding. Where do the missing socks go?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Mary's Diary is an imaginary view of the Gospel and early Acts - it's aim is to get underneath the familiar words and stories. Here's a sample - click here for the full Diary.

Extract 49
I love weddings! Maybe it's because I never had a proper one, maybe this time I'm so excited because Jesus will be there. Joanna, one of our cousins from Cana has a daughter getting married and we've all been invited. Jesus has to attend as head of our household – not that I care why, I haven't seen him since that dreadful day at the Synagogue, it will be nice to relax and celebrate again. Of course he won't be there alone. He seems to have gathered a strange group of friends, from what I hear, they're not the sort of group you'd choose to have at a party. Tax Collectors are bad news at any time, not exactly guaranteed to bring joy to a party! But I'm most worried about the Zealots in the group. They're basically terrorists hiding behind a political party. They scare me – I just hope there won't be any trouble.

Extract 50
There was trouble, but not the sort I had feared. On the third day of the party, they ran out of wine. Maybe Jesus' friends drank more than planned, maybe there were just more people because of the 12 of them. Whatever, the wine ran out. Joanna was desperate, the shame was too much for her. I knew what it was like not to be offered hospitality, I knew what it was like to have your dreams of a proper wedding shattered by shame. I couldn't stand it. I went to Jesus and explained the problem. He wrestled with it – he said 'it's not my time' – he thought I'd understand that, it's what we had told him when he was 12. But if it's time to leave home, if it's time to begin ministry, it's time to start replacing shame with honour. My eyes pleaded. Still he hesitated. 'What's this to do with me' he tried. I wanted to scream 'everything', it's got everything to do with you. Do you know how I longed for a proper wedding instead of a quick prayer? Do you know how much I long for your wedding, knowing there won't be one? Do you know what it feels like to have your friends and family ashamed of you? I can't bear any more – do something! My voice remained silent, but my eyes blazed. Tears began to fill Jesus eyes, he put his hand on my shoulder and nodded. I turned and told the servants to do whatever he said.

Extract 51
I don't know what I expected him to do. I'm not even sure what he did. The next I heard the chief steward was shouting for everyone's attention. Poor Joanna, she must have thought he had discovered there was no more wine – she had seen a servant taking him a cup of water. He banged the cup on the table and said 'At ordinary parties, they serve the best wine at the beginning then when everyone's too drunk to notice they serve up what might as well be water.' I thought Joanna was going to faint and my own heart sank. But before I could go to help, he carried on 'but in this great house, your hospitality knows no bounds – you've saved the best wine till last'. There was clapping and cheering - and a great deal more drinking! I looked at Joanna, happier and taller than I'd ever seen her before, I saw her daughter with her new husband laughing and dancing. And then I saw Jesus. He'd been watching me the whole time. He had that mischievous twinkle in his eye and a gentle smile on his face. He walked across the room and as he passed by he whispered

'New wine. New wineskins. A surprising celebration on the third day. You're right, it has everything to do with me'

Behind the Diary

John 2: 1-12
Luke we know from what he writes sets out to record 'an orderly account'. John, writing many years later has a different purpose. His ordering of events is to do with importance not sequence. He describes John the Baptist as 'the greatest of the prophets' meaning the last in line, the ultimate old covenant prophet. Now, in a similar vein he tells this wonderful story describing it as 'the first of the signs'. Not in sequence necessarily, but in importance. My guess is that we wouldn't naturally view it in this way. It isn't as profound as the blind receiving sight nor as dramatic as the feeding of the five thousand.Yet John is right. This miracle embodies the heart of the gospel, the heart of what God has come to accomplish and sets the context for everything else.

We are designed for welcome into the heart of a loving triune God. Hospitality is at the heart of love, and love is at the heart of who God is. Yet we have made the world inhospitable and we have become inhospitable - as dramatically witnessed at Jesus own birth. We were designed for celebration and enjoyment, yet sin has diminished this to occasional pleasure in the midst of a life often characterised by struggle.

In that context, Jesus comes to Cana and to a wedding. Marriage is the ultimate picture of the relationship God longs for us to enjoy with Him. Above all else it should be a joy filled occasion representing the highest hospitality - a man and woman inviting the other into the very heart of their lives. A hospitality echoed by the friends and family invited to witness and celebrate this great occasion. Yet as with our lives, shame threatens to invade and despoil. In place of abundant hospitality, the wine runs out.

Who can redeem this situation? Who can restore the possibility of true hospitality, who can open for us a door into the heart of God, who can turn shame into celebration? Jesus! On the third day, the wine, the representation of life and joy, begins to flow again. 'This, the first of the signs, Jesus did in Cana'.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Just a flesh wound

I'm a preacher - I long to see God's word setting people free - so every now and again, the blog is going to get all religious. But this is really important - give it a read!

I think there are two sides to this judging malarky. We looked at one yesterday - where we jump to ill-judged conclusions about people (see what I did there...). But we are ill-equipped to make such judgments, we don't know the detail or the background. We should leave the decision of how bad the person is to God - lest we invite the same brutal and superficial standard to be applied to ourselves.

But I think we play the reverse of this game when it comes to our need to forgive. We minimise the pain, downplay the debt owed, seek to mitigate the offence. So when the issue is trivial - a pet peeve, we often judge too harshly - the person is an idiot, a fool, doesn't care - and whilst it is a casual and brief word, it is nonetheless a curse and devalues one for whom Christ died. But when it really matters, when the offence has real consequences, in the name of forgiveness, we underplay the debt owed, we become a judge seeking reasons to mitigate the sentence. It looks loving - in fact it's a defence mechanism - if we can believe that it didn't hurt that much, then perhaps we won't be as wounded. In truth, the wound is there, but now it can't heal properly because we have denied it. Moreover, we cannot fully forgive, because we are no longer dealing with the offence as it was, but the lesser one to which we have compressed it. So the offender remains unforgiven and we nurture unforgiveness in our own lives.

You know the sort of thing. A friend lets us down and apologises. 'It's fine' we say as the knife continues to protrude from our back. Month Python got it right - click here for a quick reminder. After all, it's only a flesh wound.

We're really bad judges. Either we judge someone too harshly or we misjudge the debt we are owed. It's not a flesh wound, we're bleeding to death.  It's not a bruise, it's paralysing us. We can only forgive the debt we acknowledge is owed. If we forgive the scratch, we leave the gaping wound unforgiven and unprotected. If we forgive the bruise, the broken spine is unforgiven and cannot be healed.

But we fear the pain if we acknowledge the true injury, the full debt. It might overwhelm us, better to look away, to deny it, to live with the paralysis than to risk the pain. Maybe I was partly to blame, maybe he had a difficult background. A good friend who knows the truth of this wrote these words:

The fight beneath the surface,
The pain masked by the grin,
A battle raging,
Sharing, wouldn’t know where to begin,
Words like a river inside, flowing free
Suddenly dammed, blocked up, overridden by anxiety
Conversation abrupt, factual,
How can I trust when people don’t want to speak to me,
Body language read, I see the unsaid
And I can’t get to know them,
Would they understand,
Freak they might say
Over emotional
And I’m Too broken and fragile to risk
Being seen of as this

And what about God,
Can’t be close there either
Can I trust you,
Do you know
What do you see
Did you abandon me
The tears shed inside my head,
And in my room upon my bed
The cries for help, did you hear
Father God, did you care?
Jesus said to the man who had been paralysed for 38 years 'do you want to be healed?'. Let's be courageous and own the debt that is owed. Then we can hand it to Jesus who is the only one capable of taking it, dealing with it. Then we can truly forgive, release ourselves from the power that has been held over us. Then Jesus can bring true healing:

Here just as I am
The shiny mask removed
My soul laid bare to you
All the hurt and pain
Open to your rain
Healing from the inside out

Here just as I am
Struggling now to stand
You see the hurt I feel
Help me to find peace
as I rest in your embrace
Healing from the inside out

Here just as I am
Bowing on my knees
and as the tears flow
help me now to grow
into your design for me
Healing from the inside out

Here just as I am
Held in my father's hand
My soul open to
Your words of love
Singing from above
Healing from the inside out

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Pet Peeves

I'll tell you what really winds me up.

But first, here's a sample of what some Facebook friends said wound them up:

Drivers who don't indicate, people who clog up fb with farmville and other such apps, Leeds Utd, an unelected PM, people who don't reply to texts / emails, cold - wet weekends followed by dry weekdays, metal cutlery scraped on baking trays /chalk on boards, people who lie, when the person behind you in the cinema keeps kneeing the back of your seat, when you've had a bad day and tell someone who turns out to have had a worse one, litter, dog mess on the pavement, monday mornings, supermarket queues, people driving whilst smoking etc, people who don't talk directly to a person in a wheelchair, when people think you are thick because you are hearing impaired, when people get to the checkout and act surprised that they now need their wallet, when you lose your £ in the trolley - that didn't go straight in the first place, when you wake up with no duvet on your side of the bed, clothes left on the floor, young men acting as grumpy old men, being called a grumpy old man.....

I've highlighted ones that wind me up too, but my real pet peeve is - well, I'll tell you after a couple of stories:

It was a nightmare. She'd woken up cold and duvet-less. Then when she'd gone back to the room after breakfast there were clothes strewn all over the floor. She already had a tight schedule and really didn't have the time or energy, for that or for this. The idiot in front hadn't indicated when he'd pulled out in front of her, then he had clearly lost the accelerator whilst fumbling to light his cigarrette. Late, she'd been hampered in the supermarket by a trolley that seemed determined to go it's own way. Finally, when she'd got to the checkout the woman in front took forever to find her purse - as if it was a surprise to her that she needed to pay. Almost driven to distraction, she packed the boot of the car and returned the wayward trolley only to have to engage in a 10 minute struggle to get her £1 coin back.

Now though she could relax. Off to pick up her friend for that promised trip to the cinema. The wheelchair took some dismantling as ever, but finally they got there with minutes to spare. That's when she really got annoyed. When they got to the front of the queue the salesperson insisted on asking her what they wanted to see instead of addressing her friend directly. She knew she shouldn't, but that's when she blew her top. Suitably chastened, the attendant then almost whispered 'what film do you want to see'. Of course she couldn't have known about the hearing problem, but the patronising tone implied she was addressing an imbecile. She almost stormed out there and then. Finally the flim started. And then it ended. She had no idea what happened in between - she was so distracted by the man sat behind her who kept sticking his knee into the back of her chair... When she got home, looking for sympathy, and began to tell her husband, he immediately started to list the things that had gone wrong for him. The scream seemed to go on for ever - until she realised it wasn't a scream, but the alarm. It really had been a nightmare.

She lay there a while, thinking about each incident, replaying it from a different perspective. Maybe the guy in the car had some unseen disability and she was been harsh on him just as the attendant had unkowingly been to her friend. Maybe if she had such a low-paid, soul-destroying job, the trolleys would be in an even worse state of repair. One by one she realised that with a broader perspective, her attitude might have been very different. That's better she said to herself. Shivering slightly (there was no duvet on her side of the bed), she swivelled out of bed, treading on a discarded shirt. This time, the scream was real.

I wrote a booklet on scripture once called 'The Bible Exposed' (let me know if you want one...). In some areas it isn't traditional conservative evangelical fare. I went to a party where I didn't know everyone. I met some friendly people and we chatted for a while, parting no doubt feeling that we were all good solid Christians. A little later I was chatting to another group near them. I couldn't help overhearing them dismantling some poor bloke who had written some terrible, heretical booklet on scripture. They made all sorts of assumptions about him and the booklet (which they hadn't read), blissfully unaware that he was the man they had such a good opinion of a few minutes earlier. It did make me laugh (really).

So here's my pet peeve. Judge not that you might not be judged. God is so openly loving that the Trinity flings open their arms and welcomes us in - fully knowing, having the perfect perspective with which tojudge as unacceptable. Shall we leave the judging to God?

Except when it comes to duvets....

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Elections, Snooker and a Cat

Ooh, my head.... still no result. Did Labour win? No. Did they lose? No. Did the Tories win? Yes. Are they in number 10? No. The markets are going crazy – they and most people like the certainty of a simple yes / no, on / off. Turns out that some elections say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time. 

Reminds me of Quantum Mechanics. No, really. In this microscopic world a particle can both be here and not here at the same time. It can have radioactively decayed or have remained stable at the same moment. Things exist as unresolved possibilities – until we try to observe them, at which point they are forced to be one thing or another. Don’t switch off, there’s a bit about cats later on... but first some sport.
In the week when the World Snooker Championship ended (watching it has been banned in many enlightened countries as constituting cruel and unusual punishment), I thought I’d mention Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Steve Davis prepares to take a shot (don’t worry, I’ll fast forward) – the cue ball strikes the red and it moves towards the hole. Will it go in or not? The tension is unbearable... how could we tell without having to wait? Well, to decide, we need to know how fast the ball is travelling and in what direction. To discover this, we could fire some light at the ball and detect where it bounces to. The angle of bounce and the time taken for it to reach the detector can be used to work out the speed and direction of the ball. Except it doesn’t. The beam of light is a form of energy. When it hits the ball it exerts a small amount of pressure on it, thus changing its speed and direction – the very things you were trying to measure. Of course, in this case it will be a very small amount that makes little practical difference – it’s Steve Davis, he was going to miss anyway. (sorry Steve). But it does establish a principle – the act of measuring something changes what you were measuring. 

Now, where’s the cat... put it in this box with a special little device. (Cat lovers may want to skip to the next paragraph). The device is a radiation detector linked to a gas canister. There is a radioactive particle in the box which has a 50% chance of decaying within a fixed period – say an hour. If the detector is triggered by a decaying particle, the gas is released, thus poisoning the cat. (I said you should have skipped to the next paragraph). Quantum Physics says that at the sub-atomic level, particles (like electrons) behave like waves – with energy, but no specific location. The probability that the particle is actually at some specific place at any time is described by the equation defining the wave. Only when we try to actually observe where it is do we force it to actually be somewhere! Similarly, the probability that the particle has decayed remains just that – a probability, until we force it to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by observing it. You may well say that this is both confusing and academic. But the cat certainly wouldn’t. If the particle decays, the cat is dead. If not, it remains alive. Whilst the particle is a probability wave, it is neither and therefore the cat lives. However, the moment we try to observe whether the cat is alive or dead, we force the probability wave to collapse into a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The act of observing, the act of knowing, forces the particle to ‘decide’ whether it has decayed or not. Checking to see if the cat is alive has a 50% chance of causing its death. Observation can seriously damage your health (or that of a cat).

If the whole universe had been observed already, everything would now behave in a deterministic manner – there would be certainty, everything would behave as a ‘proper’ particle with no ambiguity. But we know that there are countless quantum states in the universe - it is filled with this uncertainty. Which means that it is as yet unobserved, as yet undetermined. At the very least, God has created a universe filled with possibilities. He has created it in such a way that as he observes it, such observation does not interfere with the possibilities. His interactions do not collapse possibilities, He has built openness into the very fabric of the universe. Love does not insist on its own way.

Of course that doesn’t mean that He has no plan, no knowledge, or no means of achieving His goals. It does mean that these are not accomplished in a deterministic framework in which we are simply pawns in a cosmos of certainty.
No cats were harmed in the production of this blog.

Friday, 7 May 2010

A Face From The Past

And now for something completely different. To help you into the weekend, a good old-fashioned story.

He waited until the rugby scrum of passengers had finished trying to get through the too narrow doorway before getting up. Instead, he looked out through the porthole, trying to see something that would remind him, something that would explain why he had come here again, after so many years. But there was nothing, vague shapes, a scene almost remembered, but then lost as the small movements of the boat took it out of view. So, as the last of his fellow travellers disembarked, he rose and made his way to the gangplank. The sunlight dazzled him as he stepped out from the dark of the cabin, seeming for a moment as if it were a spotlight, the roar of the waves the adulation of a crowd, with himself the star, walking onto the stage. Maybe it was old age, low blood pressure, the surreal effect, but in a light-headed, giddy way, he reached the end of the gangplank and prepared to set foot on land: ‘That’s one small step for a man’ he thought, trying to trivialise, to play down the importance that simmered, untouchable below the surface. But something, somewhere had other plans, and as his foot touched the pier, a seagull cried, it’s haunting song a fanfare, resonating in his mind.

‘Wait a minute Jo’ cried her mother. ‘There’s no point rushing, let’s wait till the crowd has gone’. But Jo wasn’t impressed with waiting and the whole family had to join in the game of push and shove in order not to get separated. Suddenly, like a cork out of a champagne bottle, they erupted onto the gangplank and careered onto the pier. ‘It’s wonderful’ said Jo. ‘This is going to be the best holiday we’ve ever had’. ‘I thought last years was unbeatable’ said her dad, his irony he thought, lost on Jo. ‘Oh it was’ she replied with a grin, ‘but that was last year when I was a child, now I’m an adult, older and wiser’ she added with a glint in her eye and exaggerated irony in her voice. John looked at his daughter with fresh eyes and saw for the first time, the woman that she had become.

It seemed further, the climb steeper than then. Of course it does he chided himself, you’re old now, then you were seventeen. Yet other things had changed as well, new shops, fancy hotels, more traffic. But the sweep of the bay, the shape of the cliffs, the way sun reflected on the water, nothing had changed at all. He paused to catch his breath, to see again the panorama of the coast. It was the same, he closed his eyes and in his minds eye pictured what he would see as he rounded the next bend. The white walls, glistening, the bay windows looking like eyes staring out to sea, the sign swaying in the breeze, creaking in an attempt to sound like a seagull. He walked on and there it was, the paint was new, but still white, the sign was bigger and more modern. But still it swung in the breeze and pretended to be a seagull. He laughed and went in.

The hotel was small, Jo would have preferred something more modern, somewhere bigger, where she might have met someone, where something might have happened. But the view from her room – a room of her own, the sun, the sea, the excitement of being here made everything perfect. She changed quickly from her travel clothes into something more suited to exploring. ‘Lets go down to the beach’ she said, having gone to her parents room. ‘There’s nothing to do here until dinner, and that’s ages yet’. ‘Well, we could rest for a while’, said her mother, knowing already what the response would be to that suggestion. ‘Rest!’ exclaimed Jo, ‘We’ve had hours on the boat doing nothing, I can’t possibly rest now’. ‘Well, why don’t you go and explore, then you can tell us what there is to do over dinner’ suggested John. ‘Now that you’re grown up of course’ he added with a wink at his wife.

He looked out of the window at the magnificent view that he remembered so well. Why he had insisted on the same room he didn’t really know, but now he was in it he was pleased that he had. The décor had changed and a small shower room had replaced the built in wardrobes, but the walls were no thicker than before. He sat on the bed and listened to the happy chatter of the family in the next room. Half heard voices, snatches of conversation, added to the dream like quality, and he lay back half in the present, half in that long ago past. The images rolled past his eyes again like some disjointed movie. The arrival, the excitement of his first foreign holiday, the energy of a boy turning into a man. The wonder of that first evening, the sea, the stars and….. The sound of the seagull woke him. I really must be getting old he thought, falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon. He shook his head and began to change for dinner.

She had walked for miles, along the sea front, round the shops and now, tired and thirsty, she made her way to the street café that she had admired earlier. She hesitated for a moment, the foreignness of the location combining with the foreignness of being without her parents. ‘Come on Jo’ she told herself, ‘it can’t be that hard to order a drink’. She crossed the road and headed purposefully toward the one empty table. The young man hadn’t seen her and reached for the chair just as she arrived. ‘Oh, I am sorry’ he said, clearly embarrassed. ‘Don’t worry’ said Jo with a smile, secretly relieved to hear an English voice. ‘I was just going to have a coffee’ he said rather lamely. ‘You can order me one as well then’ said Jo, gladly relieving herself of the need to exercise her somewhat shaky French.

Too early for dinner, he thought, perhaps a stroll along the seafront will give me an appetite. But secretly he knew that the real reason for the walk was to see if it was still there. The café. His mind told him it was silly, of course it wouldn’t be there, times change, it was probably a supermarket selling cheap wine to tourists. It had probably been bombed during the war, a ring-road built through it. But in his heart, he knew it would be there, just as it had been. And that would make it worse. Because it would be there, but she would not. The light was fading as the sun went down, soon he knew there would be stars. His mind insisted on returning to the hotel, to run away, to go straight back to the pier for the next boat home. But somehow his feet would not listen, listening instead to another voice deep within.

‘Jo, I know it’s hard to understand. You’re still so young. It seems so hard to leave now. First love like this is so intense, it seems so real, so for-ever. But you only met this week, this talk of marriage, really holiday romances aren’t the basis for a life long commitment’ But nothing stopped the tears. The crying stopped, the laughter and exuberance returned, but in her heart the tears remained. Not a war, not a marriage to someone she loved, not children of her own had ever really dried those tears.

Tears misted his eyes as he saw the café. The large umbrellas, the checked table cloths, the white lattice chairs, all as they had been. Even now the place was almost full as the first of the evening stars glinted into view. He walked across the road and placed his hand on a chair, a seagull called, and a bridge across the years was completed. ‘Hello’ said Jo. ‘Would you order me a coffee?’

Thursday, 6 May 2010

What is truth?

Science is about what is seen, what is observable. Faith is about that which is unseen.Science by definition has no grounds on which to attack faith. Scientists who attempt to do so are as misguided as those who use the Bible to defend God against their attacks!

So, I can happily assert that complexity doesn’t imply design, that there is a mechanism by which complexity and diversity can occur and that there is time enough for it to have happened. It doesn't threaten my faith nor does it invalidate the Bible. Evolution is a perfectly sound scientific hypothesis; it fits the abundant evidence, it consistently explains what we observe and it makes testable predictions.
"But the Bible says God created everything in 6 days, if evolution is true it took much longer which must mean the Bible is wrong and therefore everything in it is untrustworthy... Or maybe ‘day’ means geological epoch and I saw once on You Tube that someone had found Noah’s Ark and there was a programme on God TV that proved Intelligent Design, especially if you donated $100.... And anyway, science says that the second law of thermodynamics proves that evolution can’t be true...”
The sound you can hear in the background is me weeping. The concept that scientific theories constitute 'truth' did not exist when the Bible was written. To backfill it with this expectation is to needlessly bring it into a battlefield it is not designed for.

Genesis is not the religious equivalent of an IKEA leaflet  ‘Make sure you have all the parts and tools needed before attempting to build this universe’.

I profoundly believe that the Bible is true, but true on its own terms, true to its designed purpose. If we believe that it is true, why not take it at its word? It says that it is inspired by God and useful for teaching what is right, for convincing when we go wrong, for showing us how to get back on course and  for instructing us in how to make right choices. (2 Timothy 3) Guess what? When we use it for that, it does its job. (‘My word does not return void, but accomplishes that for which it was purposed’). But when we try and use it to for something else (to describe scientifically how something happened, to describe historically what happened and when) then we risk bringing it into disrepute and causing damage to our own faith and that of those for whom we have discredited it.

Of course Genesis is true. But not in the small-minded, narrow scientific arena, describing the mere mechanics of creation. No, Genesis is true in a much more profound way than that. It unveils God’s love for us, it shouts that men and women are equal, it declares the immense dignity and worth that God invests in us. It reveals the creative, triune nature of God and yet demonstrates that He nonetheless graces us with genuine choice. It speaks of the battle in which we find ourselves, warns that with freedom comes responsibility. It points to God’s broken heart and His unbreakable confidence in us. Above all it points to redemption and Jesus. Imagine a world that made choices believing that to be true.  

Science seeks to understand the universe, to comprehend it. I am fascinated by science.

Scripture seeks to reveal God in Christ and how we can have eternal, loving relationship with Him and each other. I would give my life for that.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Beaky flappy wings

It was hell in the playground. All the other birds teased Bobby. Long beak, big, ungainly wings. 'Beaky Bobby flappy wings' they called him. 'You're not normal' they said. Mr Smith his teacher tried to console him (he sympathised with anyone who was having a hard time right now) 'Let's explore what we mean by normal' he said and went off into a lecture when all Bobby really wanted was a new pair of trainers.

What Mr Smith outlined was worth noting though.  In population terms, normal has a special meaning. If you take a random sample of any population and measure a characterstic (length of beak for example), you will find the sizes vary around an average. If you chart it on a graph you get the famous bell shaped curve. Some beaks are longer than others, some shorter, but 99.9% of the population will be within 3 standard deviations of the average. (Don't panic, Bobby comes back in a minute). Normal is anything in this range. Bobby (there I told you he would be back) might have an unusually large beak, but he is still normal.Who needs specialist counsellors when you've got statistics?

It is however the way evolution (sorry for swearing) works. Unless a change or an extreme actually does harm to an organism's chance of survival, the change just stays and gets inherited. In fact most organisms are simply an accretion of random changes.

Lets go back to Bobby. His friends are still giving him grief, but they are all getting thinner. It's been a particularly harsh winter and all the normal fruit has been eaten. But no problem for Bobby. He has a long beak and can just penetrate a fruit that none of his friends have ever eaten. It's delicious. And nutritious. Of course, there are quite a few others who have similarly long beaks as Bobby, but they just don't have the wing power to fly high enough to reach. Others have the wing power, but not a long enough beak. It turns out these random, statistical variations have come good. Strange how all the girl birds seem to fancy Bobby not his increasingly scrawny class-mates....

One of the key objections levelled against the theory of evolution is that there is no mechanism for complexity to develop. But there is. Statistics and probability. Random changes, variations. The lethal ones die out, those that aren't just stay. Occasionally a collection of random changes gives an advantage, more often a change in environment turns a neutral or mildly positive set of changes into a real winner. A piece of skin that is light-sensitive and of no use. Hangs around for generations. Another random change - the shape of the skin becomes slightly concave so that light gathers onto the sensitive patch. Again, for generations, no advantage - just a very small sub-set of the population with both characteristics. Then some of this sub-set randomly develop a reflex that moves away from light - others develop one towards light. Finally, after generations of it not mattering something in the environment changes. It doesn't matter what. But anything in the dark dies. Now, what was an extremely small population becomes almost overnight the only population. Now all the descendents will have these characteristics and a new set of random additions can begin.

Mr Smith got home from school. 'Have you seen the price of fruit?' he asked the house in general. 'You'd need to win the lott.....' Heads in hands, he turned round and decided a long walk might be in order.

What does it all mean? Find out on Thursday...

Against the odds

'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?'

A phrase from our Will containing 39 characters. The probability of randomly coming up with this is around 2 followed by 58 zeroes. There isn't enough space on all the planets in the universe or enough time since it started for monkeys with typewriters to randomly bash out even this phrase. (Although the contract for the supply of the typewriters would be worth a bob or two). Given how much more complex are we than this simple phrase, the argument is put that evolution is not a credible mechanism for our existence - thus proving the existence of a Creator.

Not so.

Firstly, as per the previous blog, we are not looking for a particular phrase, any valid phrase will do (specifically, any life with the intelligence to ask the question 'how did I get here?', or for Hitch-hikers guide fans, 'where shall we have lunch?'). Secondly the above calculation presumes that as soon as you get one character wrong, you have to start again. But as soon as you have a mechanism for retaining bits that work (inheritance), the picture changes dramatically. Finally, the calculation allows for any one of 30 characters to be valid at any point. But of course this isn't the case - not all letters can go next to each other. Similarly not all chemicals bond together, not all sequences of molecules work. (I can hear someone saying 'but that must mean someone designed the rules' - no, but we'll come back to that later).

If you take these into account it would only take just over 1000 attempts to arrive at our phrase, meaning we seriously over-ordered on typewriters. There is more than enough time to arrive at our level of complexity.

Now those of you who know me, will be asking - 'where's he going with this? He's a pastor who firmly believes in God and often uses the creation account in Genesis as the starting point of his theology'.

Keep reading - in the meantime, where shall we have lunch?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Intelligent Design

Mrs Smith just won the lottery. She's a bit of a geek (a rich one now mind) so she sits down with a cup of coffee (she's not into champagne) and calculates the odds against her winning. The light dawns. If she did the lottery for a thousand years, the chances of her winning are statistically insignificant. 'It's fate' she shouts - 'the probability of me winning is so low, someone up there must have planned for me to win'. Johnny Smith (her 12 year old son) responds 'don't be silly mum' (his chances of a new games console reducing all the time...) 'anyone who won would now be saying the same thing. The chances of you winning are the same as anyone winning. Whoever won would think that "fate" had intervened'. (he has a large vocabulary for a 12 year old...) 'Oh I see' said Mrs Smith 'Given that someone wins, the chance of any individual winning is roughly the same and they'd all feel 'special' if they won'. Sadly, Mr Smith now comes in and confesses that he didn't buy the ticket this week - but that's another story.

So it goes with the argument that humans are so unlikely to have evolved by chance that there must be a designer. It is true that the probability of humans is so low as to be statistically insignificant - but it is equally low for any other form of intelligent life. So, if I was sat here typing with my eighth arm whilst combing my blue fur with the specially suited tool on the end of my sixth, I would be thinking 'the odds against me evolving such a comb are so remote it must mean there is a designer'. The argument only works if you start from the presupposition that the outcome you see is the outcome that was desired. It's a circular argument: I want humans, humans have evolved against impossible odds, someone must have wanted humans... But if it really is chance evolutionary paths that led here, then they could equally have led elsewhere and whatever had evolved with the intelligence to ask the question could conclude that the outcome they see is the one intended.

Lucy Smith (who has been listening to her brother) says 'So it would have been equally likely for us to have evolved with only one head and only two legs?' 'Don't be ridiculous' said Mr Smith trying to distract attention from his failure to buy the lottery ticket.