An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).

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A year in the life of a stem cell transplant patient – and friend

Tim Page is a close, and certainly my oldest, friend – we have known each other since we were 4 years old!

It has been humbling to see him, and his beloved wife Ruth and two sons, journey through the last year of recurrence of blood cancer and the ‘nuclear’ last-chance-option of a donor stem cell transplant in St James’ Hospital in Dublin. As Tim says, recipients have a one-in-four chance of survival 18 months post transplant.

Tim has written up reflections from the last year. There have been a few times that he nearly didn’t make it this far. Just like Tim in conversation, they are honest, real, thoughtful, generous and suffused with hope.  I commend them to you for a read.

Perhaps your 2018 has been a great year – then perhaps these reflections will sharpen your sense of thankfulness for blessings – particularly health and the freedoms and possibilities it offers.

Or, perhaps your 2018 has been a dark one with much grief and sadness. Perhaps these reflections will speak into that experience as words of a person who knows psychological and physical pain and yet who has hope in God that death does not have the last word.

I have clipped the start below … for the rest of the article click here

This weekend, 15 December 2018, was a new birthday for me.  I am one year old following last year’s donor stem cell transplant. This radical and risky process has upgraded my blood from B Rh+ve to A Rh+ve and was my only chance for ongoing life. In a pre-transplant St James’s hospital consultation, it was made clear that my chances of survival to 18 months post-transplant were one-in-four.

In my five run-ins with blood cancer over 34 years, certain dates are irrepressibly hard-wired into my thinking, especially the first diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on 24 September 1984.

Having relapsed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in April 2017, my prayer to God in May 2017 was concise:

“Please help me get to transplant and through transplant”

Getting to transplant required a ‘Complete Response’ to the toughest chemo of my life in Belfast City Hospital leading to clear PET scan.  That was achieved after some uncertainties. This good news meant that Professor Vandenberghe at St James’s Dublin could accept me onto the Transplant Programme. She was explicit about the rigours of the transplant process, referring to it as “Tiger Territory”, due to multiple risks …

 

 

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.

dylan

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.

img_5373.jpg
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.

 

Resurrection Hope

 Christ is Risen!

Monasterboice High Cross

This is the message of Easter. These three words speak of another reality breaking in upon our world and transforming it forever. Death is overcome in God’s raising of Jesus Christ. Resurrection generates hope. At the most basic level, hope is that somehow the future will be better than the present. But Christian hope has a specific character.

The foundation of Christian hope is God himself.

God is utterly good. He is committed to his created world in a way we can barely grasp. The triune God – Father, Son and Spirit – act out of immeasurable love in history to effect its ultimate redemption. God is the “God of hope” (Rom 15:13). Christians dare not hope in anything or anyone else. Christian faith is trust and hope in God alone.

The future has stormed the gates of death

The incarnation, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals the true nature of reality itself. That reality is apocalyptic – one in which God has broken into this world, disrupting it forever.  Easter tells us that God is God and we are not! The future has stormed the gates of death and smashed them down. The Spirit is the presence of God within his people. Those “in Christ” share in his resurrection life in the here and now. History is in God’s hands – it is moving towards a time when that future will become present – when God’s will will indeed be done on earth. This means that Christian hope
is a stance towards our future, which regards the incompleteness and imperfection and bleakness of history not with terror or resignation but with trust that, because God has made himself known as creator and reconciler, he will also demonstrate himself to be consummator. (John Webster)

The Character of Hope

How does hope shape the Christian believer? What difference does hope make? I love what John Webster says here
The Christian who hopes is not engaged in an act of self-formation; he or she makes history only because in a deep sense history has already been made, and because only on that basis is it possible to be a hopeful person and agent.
Because of Easter Sunday, Christians are to be the most hopeful people in the world. They are set free from the past, and look forward with joy to the future, and so are to be people who transform the present.

The transforming power of hope

Christians live in the “in between time” – the “now” is a reminder of mortality, sin, suffering and death. Christian hope is not naive optimism nor it is triumphalism. The “not yet” is a present experience of what can and will be. The Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing in the here and now that future.
Such hope is life-changing. Because of Easter Sunday, Christian hope is not resignation and a desire to escape creation. Nor is it despair at the reality of immeasurable suffering in this world. Authentic Christian hope will motivate and inspire and guide action in the present that anticipates the future.
Such action may be creation care; it may be pastoral care; it may be resisting evil and injustice; it may be empowering and liberating others. Whatever it is – it is somehow to foreshadow the kingdom come.

Faith, hope and Love

Above all, hopeful action in the world is to be characterised by love – for love transcends faith and hope. Love is eternal in a way that they are not. Love of God, love of others, love of God’s world – this is the greatest way that God’s people can demonstrate the power of the future to transform the present.

With best wishes for a hopeful and joyful Easter!

 

What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

On Joy

What image comes to mind when you think of joy?

I can’t think about joy without picturing a couple sitting around a kitchen table in an anonymous Communist-style tower block apartment back in Ceaucescu’s Romania. They had lost jobs, been in prison, were regularly hounded by the Securitate, had poor health and little or no access to decent medical care.

They were (and are) two of the most joyful people I have ever met.

Joy is a hard thing to define. You know it when you see it – and know when it is missing. As I suggested in the last post, I’m suspicious of the idea that joy can be so deep down that it never surfaces in visible, tangible ways. Joy, I think, can’t really exist without a delight in life and in other people. It’s a sense of happiness and gladness that can’t be contained. It is not superficial cheeriness, but neither is it possible without smiles, humour and laughter.

There is a lot of joy in the New Testament – in Jesus, John, Paul and others. I did a little study of joy (chara) and grouped some examples into different categories (this is not exhaustive and not researched – just a quick sketch).

  1. Joy at the promise of the Messiah

Luke 1:14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

  1. Joy at the word / gospel / kingdom of God

Mat 13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy

Mat 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Luke 8:13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.

1Pe 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory

  1. Experiencing the joy of God

Mat 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

  1. (Mega) Joy at the resurrection

Mat 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Luke 24:52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy

  1. Joy in Mission

Luke 10:17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Acts 8:8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 15:3 So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

  1. Joy in and through Jesus

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be full.

John 17:13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

  1. Joy in the actions and goodness of God

Acts 12:14 Recognizing Peter’s voice in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

  1. Joy in the Spirit

Acts 13:52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

1Th 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Joy in Relationships within the family of God

Rom 15:32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

2Cor 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

2Cor 8:2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Philippians 1:3-4 I thank God in my remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

Philippians 2:29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men

2Ti 1:4 As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

2Jo 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.

  1. Joy in Spiritual Maturity and Progress of others

2Cor 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

2Cor 7:4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.

Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for my joy and crown stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,

1Th 2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant [joyful], but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1John 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

  1. Joy in the midst of suffering and persecution

Heb 10:34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Jam 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds

  1. The Joy of Jesus

Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Perhaps there are things that strike you afresh as you read that list. Here are some that occurred to me in no particular order:

i. Christian joy is, well .. Christian. It is centered on the good news of Jesus – as promised Messiah, the faithful saviour, the risen Lord who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross.’

ii. Joy has to come from somewhere. It is a virtue that needs sustaining, And in a Christian framework it is tied to the Spirit who gives new life. Joy is a sign of the Spirit at work. Joylessness is a sign that the Spirit has vacated the building. This is why it is almost impossible to separate joy from other fruit of the Spirit.

iii. Christian joy flows from rejoicing in the spiritual progress of others and seeing fruit in mission. It is other focused. Many instances of joy are relational, radiating from deep friendships and a common identity as followers of Jesus.

A personal aside here. This week at IBI we have been celebrating with students the end of the academic year. Many have shared stories of what they have learnt and experienced at College – and it has been humbling and deeply encouraging to hear again and again students say that they have been transformed, challenged, envisaged, and impassioned. And the other consistent theme is joy in deep friendships made – along with a lot of affectionate mockery, craic, fun and lack of proper respect for their teachers may I say …

iv. Ultimately Christian joy depends on the good news of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians can be and should be joyful in the world of tears because this world does not and will not have the last word.

The unsmiling dour Lurgan Spade Christian who has a deep deep joy is I’m afraid ultimately life-denying and gospel denying. Unattractive gloom does not speak of hope, love, joy and transformation. It speaks more of a fatalism and hope-lessness, a gospel of bad news rather than good.

There is not one instance I could see where joy resulted from a material thing or experience.  This is not to go down a grim ascetic route, God created the world and it was very good. It is just to note that the focus in the NT is joy revolving around the serious things we discussed in the last post. The material (fallen) world as a source of joy is relatively unimportant.

I wonder here how much my life – and the church in the West – finds sources of joy largely within the world on its own terms. Things like good food, friends, holidays, creation, slick technology, a home etc. And so, bit by bit, we find it harder and harder to imagine joy that does not depend on these things?

v. Christians are to be joyful because they belong to that new world, right in the midst of this old one. Not in an escapist sense – exactly the opposite. They are to be serious people of hope, and justice, and mission and courage because God is and will redeem this gloomy serious world into a new world of joy.

Joy, theologically framed, is therefore a foretaste of the world to come. We love and laugh and rejoice now because of the joy set before us.

9780567669964Back to the conversations between Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas one last time. The book finishes on an entirely appropriate note – that of joy. I love what SH says here (not sure how he knows he has only 5 or so years to live)..

Joy isn’t something you try to have. It’s an overwhelming that you suddenly find yourself taken up in an activity that just offers satisfaction that you could not have imagined as possible. Yesterday when I came in and you and I looked at each other it was joy, wasn’t it? I find it when I’m at worship, over and over, the joy of having been made part of this wonderful world that otherwise could not be imagined. I find it in the joy of the work we have been given as theologians. Funny as it is! How silly to think you could know how to talk about God? But that’s what we’ve been given to do. I just find it a constant surprise. To speak in another key, I wonder what it means that I’ll be 76 in July. I don’t have more than five— or a little more— years to live. I thought I would be afraid of death, and I may be, but I haven’t experienced it that way yet. Probably because I still don’t know I’m going to die. I think, one, I have had such a wonderful life and, two, whatever Heaven may be, it will be joy. I don’t know what it means to be part of that, but I am sure it is there, because I think that all that is is surrounded by joy. [286]

Brock later quotes from Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew,

The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed— but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.

And Hauerwas responds that in effect being caught up in joy means “the great adventure” of refusing “to let the old world overwhelm the world that we have been given in Christ”.

The Christian life as the great adventure of joy – I like that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Fear, Nietzsche and Beauty: approaching 2017

Two things behind this post.

  1. 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
  2. This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)

img_7518-2

2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.

In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):

  • The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
  • The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
  • Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
  • European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
  • That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
  • Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this  a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
  • The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within.  So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.

The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.

These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:

What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?

Some possible responses:

  1. Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’

There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.

But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.

So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.

2. Live by the sword

Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)

Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).

It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.

An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.

3.   Accept the fate of the world

nietzscheThe brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is.  It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.

Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.

4. Hope, compassion and beauty

Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.

Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.

That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19

As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.

Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.

There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?

Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.

Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.

Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.