On ‘Doomism’, Sentimentality and the Cross

The April – June 2021 50th Edition of VOX magazine is out in a nifty new smaller printed format designed to make it easier to read on tablet, phone or computer.

You can read it online or download a PDF for free – can’t getter a better deal than that for what is an excellent magazine.

This edition has a particular focus on Ireland’s past, specifically the legacy of abuse formally made public via recent reports in the Mother and Baby homes. I’ll come back to articles on this in later blog posts. It also continues a series on racism in Ireland as well as an excellent article by Karen Huber on the Ravi Zacharias scandal and how it should

“light a fire under all Christians to hold our teachers, our church, and even our doctrines accountable. We should test the actions of those in authority against the standards set in Scripture, and we must pay heed to the spirit of discernment.”

My musings column had an Easter theme and is below. It raises questions, especially in light of the injustices and evil just mentioned above. Questions like:

  • What does it look like to be people of hope in a broken world?
  • What is our response to injustice and suffering?
  • How is the church to embody a different way – a way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalised?

Doomism, Sentimentality and the Cross

Information Overload

The age of Information Technology has certainly lived up to its name; we have instantaneous access to information about pretty well anything we care to think of. Despite lockdown the world remains at our fingertips – there’s no 5km limit if you have a broadband connection. One thing I’ve discovered over the last few months is joining live safaris in the African bush. It’s been a wonderful way to ‘travel’, immerse yourself in another world and learn lots all at the same time. (I’m watching a leopard hunt impalas as I write this!)

But the net is also the gateway to all sorts of other information. There is little that we can’t read or see for ourselves about what’s going on in the world. Because billions of people now carry smartphones, photographs and videos are being taken daily on a vast scale. Even events that authoritarian governments try to hide tend to hit the news. Two examples as I’m writing are the abduction, imprisonment and now disappearance of Princess Latifa in Dubai (only made known through secret videos she took) and ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighur population in Xinjiang (despite denials satellite pictures and videos are damning). But to these we could add countless others.

And then there’s information hidden away for so long, but now exposed to the light of day. In this edition of VOX are stories about injustices experienced by children in an Irish mother and baby home and revelations about Ravi Zacharias exploiting and using women for his own sexual gratification. And this is even before mentioning social media and billions of individuals sharing their lives and opinions on everything from funny cat videos to #FreeBritney to saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Such a vast amount of information has never been available to any human beings before. I wonder sometimes do we know too much? We’ve always known that the world was broken, but now we can watch it unfold livestreamed.

I’ve been musing about this new world – what it does to us and how are disciples of Jesus best to navigate its unfamiliar terrain. It seems to me that there are at least two dead-ends we can go down.

Two Dead Ends

One is ‘doomism’. All too easily, we can become news junkies, overwhelmed with bad news and in a constant state of fear or depression about our world and where it’s going.

Another is ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ – we literally switch off, close our eyes and ears and pretend the world isn’t like it is. We just retreat into a safe bubble of sentimental optimism. A Christian form of this sort of denial is to celebrate the love, forgiveness and presence of God while rarely, if ever, talking about the reality and power of sin and evil (including our own).

Hopeful Realism

But Easter speaks of a third, deeper, and more mysterious way of understanding our world. The way of the cross is neither ‘doomism’ nor optimistic sentimentality, it is, rather, the way of ‘hopeful realism’.

By ‘realism’ I mean that Christians should be the last people to be surprised by bad news, even the bad news of a Christian leader being unmasked. This is because the Bible has a stark diagnosis of what’s wrong with this world. It is Sin with a capital ‘S’. This is not just your wrong actions and mine (personal sins), though it includes them for sure. But Sin as a malign, destructive power that leads to death. A power that we have no way of overcoming on our own: not through better education, or self-esteem, or economics, or human ingenuity, or scientific progress or more information, or good life choices. Humanly speaking, we have absolutely no grounds for optimism about ourselves or our world.

By ‘hopeful’ I mean that our hope is God alone – and that is a great, big, wondrous sort of hope. This is the mystery of Easter. The stronger our understanding of Sin, the deeper is the good news of the cross. The cross

“is the scene of God’s climatic battle against the power of a malignant and implacable Enemy” (Fleming Rutledge).

No human has the ability to break the power of Sin and death – only God can. And, out of love, he has done just that.

Advent Reflection: Jesus versus Covid-19

Romans 5:15-17

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

‘The gift is not like the trespass’ is a profoundly important phrase within Paul’s comparison of Jesus and Adam in Romans 5.

We see what Adam and Jesus share in common: both are men (vs 15); both are representatives of humanity.

It is from an emphasis on shared humanity that Paul develops an argument ‘from the lesser to the greater’. Both are human, but Jesus is a far superior human figure to that of Adam.

Adam’s trespass results in sin, death, judgment and condemnation.

God’s gift in Jesus Christ brings justification, grace, righteousness and life.

In other words, what Adam did, Jesus un-does to excess. Jesus confronts and overcomes the destructive effects of Adam’s sin due to the surpassing provision of God’s grace.

This is why that little phrase – ‘the gift is not like the trespass’ – is actually a wonderful way of describing the limitless, self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, as we celebrate Christmas 2020, we are reminded of the astonishing fact of the incarnation. Jesus is a truly human saviour. There is an indissolvable bond between Christ and humanity – he is one of us.

The Nicene Creed (381AD) puts it this way:

“Who for us and our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.’

But these verses remind us that Jesus is in crucial respects, a human unlike any other.

All of humanity is ‘in Adam’ – we are under the reign of death (vs 17). Death is a ‘dark lord’ of destruction from whom we have no ability to escape.

This Christmas 2020 death crowds in on us, compounding memories of absent loved ones. Daily coronavirus fatalities flash across our news screens. Death, usually kept in the background in rich Western nations, has rudely taken centre stage.

BBC News – candles lit in Bern for those who have died of Covid-19

Images of death colonise our imaginations. Who could have imagined at the beginning of this year that the success or failure of governments globally now revolves around the management of death?

We grasp on to hopes of a vaccine, literally as a life-saver. We long for life to go back to the way it was – with death pushed back into the shadows – for as long as possible.

And this is right and good. Life is a gift to be lived well. We are made to live in relationship, not locked up staring at screens.

But vaccine or not, the rule of death unleashed by Adam still reigns.

And so the gospel is powerful good news.

But through the ‘one man, Jesus Christ’ (vs 17), all in him are freed from the reign of death and are ushered into a new realm – the reign of life.

God is a God of life, not death. His agenda for humanity is freedom from death. The Spirit is the life-giver. Jesus is the human Lord of life who has been raised from the dead.

This is why Christians celebrate the incarnation at Christmas.

REFLECTIONS ON ‘LIFE IN REVERSE’: END, MIDDLE AND BEGINNING

Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.

Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.

I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!

In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.

DEATH

First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.

I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.

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Stanley Hauerwas

As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)

Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.

In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.

I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.

It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah

… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)

Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?

I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.

As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.

But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.

And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.

CELEBRATING A MILESTONE

The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.

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Cutting the cake

Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.

I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.

The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.

In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.

Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.

BAPTISM

The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.

It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.

The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.

The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …

The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS

As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.

Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.

  1. Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
  2. It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
  3. It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
  4. True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
  5. Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
  6. Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
  7. Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
  8. And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Faith, hope and love in South Tipperary

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a profoundly Christian funeral.

The beautiful church was packed with all sorts of people – including family, friends, colleagues, carers from the local hospice, local people whose lives had been touched by the remarkable woman whose life we were remembering and celebrating.

There were tears, there was fond laughter, there were songs, there were prayers, there were wonderfully well-spoken words.

Framing all of this, for me anyway, was a deeply tangible sense of St Paul’s great triumvirate of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.

Faith

In focus was the faith in Jesus and subsequent life of the lady whose earthly life had drawn to a close earlier this week: a vibrant, active, transforming faith that motivated her life.

As someone said, “she walked the walk” right to the end. Everyone who spoke, from young to old, talked of the impact she had had on their lives – nurturing, encouraging, caring, daring and challenging. A faith that trusted God, took risks, lived boldly and fearlessly fought injustice wherever she saw it.

Linking to the last post, here was faith made manifest in a life of good works. There was even a standing ovation by the congregation. And while she would have been horrified at the thought, it seemed perfectly right and fitting to applaud such a life.

Hope

Yet this was a funeral with a coffin and a grieving husband and children. Hearts were heavy with the damage that death does to those closest. There had been weeks and months of suffering and caring culminating in a final parting.

In John 11 we are told that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Verses 33 and 38 tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. The Greek has a sense of his indignation, outrage or anger at death – that bringer of grief and loss.

This, I think, carries with it a profound and deep hope. Jesus has just told the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Yet a moment later he is in tears. This Lord of Life is not some dispassionate force or distant Deist God. He is with his friends in their grief and sadness. Paul talks about death as the last enemy; it is not a thing to be welcomed and embraced.

The whole Bible can be read as the story of God conquering death and its root cause, sin. The good news of the gospel is that the one who is the Resurrection and the Life undoes the power of death once and for all. At the cross he atones for sin and dies in our place. And at the resurrection he is shown to have defeated sin and death decisively and completely.

All this means that at the very core of the Christian faith is a deep and sure hope – the hope of resurrection life to come. Yes, Christians, like anyone else, cry out in lament and pain when death comes calling. But they can also look forward to, and pray for, the ultimate healing and restoration of a broken painful world. For such ultimate restoration is precisely God’s agenda.

It was this specific Christian hope that pervaded the service. Death did not have the last word.

Love

The third thing so powerfully evident during the funeral was an overwhelming testimony of love.

Moving words of love from a dying woman to her husband; words of love from husband to wife; a deep and tenacious mother’s love that so obviously sustained, formed, empowered and liberated three children to be who they had been created to be; love of grandchildren for their grandmother; love of a pastor for a friend; love of a woman for those in need whoever they were; love of colleagues for a nurse who needed care herself after a lifetime of care for others; tender and sacrificial love of hospice carers for a mortally ill patient; self-giving love of a daughter nursing her mother to the end.

It is for good reason Paul says love is greater than faith and hope. I like to call him the apostle of love. Love pervades his teaching and ministry, but that is only in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. Love is lifeblood of the Christian faith. God himself, John tells us, is love. Love fulfils the law. Without love, all the good works in the world done in God’s name are a waste of time. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence is love. The call of God’s people, OT and NT, is to love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbours as themselves. Love alone is eternal – it is the language of the new creation to come.

Christians are taught by their Lord to pray ‘May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ What I witnessed just a little bit of yesterday was a slice of kingdom-come life here on earth.

There were also stories of her sheer love of life, including love of the natural beauty of South Tipperary in particular. After the funeral, on the way home, I was passing the lovely mountain of Slievenamon. It was a sunny warm afternoon and, unplanned, I stopped and took a couple of hours out to climb the mountain and soak in the familiar scenery of a place that I used to know well.

Here are a couple of pictures of that walk.

Near the top someone had etched a simple prayer on a rock in the path – I can’t think of a better tribute to a truly Christ-like life.

 

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Ultimate purpose of being a Christian (2): death

Some follow on thoughts from the last post ..

Response in faith to the gospel, marked by conversion & baptism, is merely the beginning of a process of being conformed to the image of the Son.

This ‘conformity’ involves bringing the Christian into a personal experience of both the death and resurrection of the Son.

Being a cheerful sort of bloke, I’ll stay with death in this post.

Paul can say things like ‘I have been crucified with Christ’ (Gal 2. 19) and all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death‘ (Rom 6:3-4).

Col 3:2 says ‘For you died ...’

In Romans 6:5, he can say that Christians “been united with him in a death like his“.

But if Jesus was physically killed, obviously his followers ‘die’ in a different way …. don’t they? 

Maybe, but maybe not. 

If you are Christian, what did / do you ‘die’ to as part of the process of spiritual transformation?

I say did / do because there is a past tense death, yet also an active imperative to ‘keep dying’. Paul commands believers to ‘Put to death‘ whatever belongs to their old life (Col 3:5).

Put it this way – before new life is possible, there is death to the old. Death is the beginning of the Christian life. Before resurrection is crucifixion.

The call of discipleship is a call first to come and die … and then to keep dying.

Consider Philippians 3:10-11

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

I suspect that most of us are very comfortable about knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection – and rejoicing and giving thanks for new life and hope.

But I wonder if we are as keen to know Christ through ‘becoming like him in his death‘ and by ‘participation in his sufferings?

This sort of knowing is not only a spiritual death, Paul had no problem linking it to very real and physical suffering.  Even to the degree where he can ‘delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties’ (2 Cor.12:10).

Is Paul some kind of masochist?  No, it is because suffering points to how Christ was ‘crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power’ (2 Cor.13:4)

This is rugged uncompromising stuff. It speaks of the offence of the cross to all forms of human self-sufficiency and optimism that ‘I’m OK, You’re OK.’ The death of Christ was absolutely necessary or God becomes a moral monster. Only in Jesus’ death is atonement and forgiveness made possible.

The call to death can be, and frequently is, misunderstood.

Rather than the gateway to a joyful transformed new life (of which more in the next post), some interpret it as a call to an existence of perpetual life-denying misery. There is something truly tragic about joyless, glum, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless and death-fixated Christianity. The worst consequence of all being that it ends up damaging the weak and vulnerable under its control.

We’ve had our fair share on this island – of both Catholic and Protestant forms – and I think some research into the theology that fostered such darkness is crying out to be done.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

thinking death

This links in with the post the other day on Near Death Experiences.  I’ve been reading Anthony Thiselton’s book Life After Death: a new approach to last things.

Thiselton refers to Moltmann who said

“To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent … to live as if there were no death is to live an illusion”

And Thiselton says

“To be reprieved from serious illness, or to have experienced near death, far from deflecting us from this life, can give our present life a new depth. It is those who repress the thought of death, who turn life into an idol, who perhaps have also deeply repressed anxieties about death.”

And that repression is a symptom of Western life’s avoidance of death. Some interesting contrasts to consider:

In Victorian times, death was a central concern – and still is for 2/3 of the world. Death is near and is witnessed, experienced and familiar. Children are not protected from seeing the dead and dying.

In our culture a quick and painless death is a blessing. In the medieval and Renaissance times it was viewed with horror because there was no time to prepare for the afterlife.

Thiselton argues the self-love of modern life makes an idol out of life itself.  This life is all there is and this means that death is marginalised, avoided, meaningless and absurd – the end of everything good.

The idolisation of life leads to full-on living – fast food, fast cars, fast relationships, fast meetings …

Modern fear of death means that death is “no longer the public solemn event it used to be.” Dying and death are now personal and private affairs.

I’d be interested in your thoughts here – how has being confronted by death changed the way you look at life?

I’m not sure I agree with Thiselton on the last point. Seems to me that death is becoming more openly incorporated in public secular remembrance services celebrating someone’s life. Christians may say this is one way the ‘idol of life itself’ is worshipped. Atheists have the opposite take; here Christian postmortal hope is seen as narcissistic.

A personal note here: having spent quite a while in hospital visits over the last few weeks and in some meetings with (excellent) doctors talking about odds of life/death survival rates and so on, never has it been more clear to me that modern science and medicine is wonderful and resourceful and remarkable, but it has nothing at all to say about the most inevitable part of life – death.

Discussion of death was studiously avoided. It was a taboo subject because it was outside the parameters of science and medicine. Pastoral care and support was therefore all focused on practical issues of life.  Important of course, but ultimately superficial. Meaning, significance and hope beyond death were off limits because there was no framework for them to exist.

Comments, as ever, welcome.