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)

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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.

which Messiah? which hope?

Sstatue-liberty-hands473x488o America has made its decision. I believe it’s a reckless one.

Trump’s narrative in the campaign and his acceptance speech is messianic … greatness is around the corner, our time has come, economic blessing is coming, the government will be once again for the people. .. it is going to be a beautiful thing.

The only certain thing about such dreams is that they will fail. The irony is of course that Trump got elected on capitalising on the failure of previous political dreams. And so on goes the cycle of political ambition and hubris.

What’s not sure of course is how a Trump Presidency, his supporters and America in general will deal with the dashing of those dreams. I don’t think it’s going to be beautiful, it’s likely to get rather ugly. Such has been his rhetoric that he’s got little or no room for manoeuvre in building walls, delivering jobs, fixing the entire political system, renegotiating global trade, and making people feel they have hope in life …small stuff like that.

When Obama was elected the first time there was a lot of messianic mania in the air. I remember thinking then that he had no chance of meeting such unrealistic hopes. No mere human could …

For Christians do not believe in political messiahs .. whether democrat or Republican or whatever other brand around the world. Human history is littered with the vain hopes of emperors, kings, and hubristic politicians and their ambitions to control history. One reason I think voting for Trump was reckless is that his vaunted ambitions are going crash and he’s going to do a lot of unpredictable damage in the process.

In contrast, Christians believe in the one true Messiah who is the eternal Word made flesh, the king of kings, the one through whom all things are made. Christians’ hopes lie in him alone – nowhere else. For it is in God, Father, Son and Spirit, is the hope of a ‘new world order’ of justice and peace. In him alone is reconciliation, ultimately of all things.

We pray for his kingdom to come in full.  It is already here, we are citizens of the kingdom first before any national or political identity. Our ‘politics’ are kingdom of God politics – the church as an alternative body politic to the vain power plays of transient politicians. A calling to preach, live and embody the good news of Jesus the Messiah and risen Lord. To be people of reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. To live lives worthy of the gospel. To walk in the Spirit, love God and love our neighbours.

That task remains constant and urgent – regardless of who happens to occupy the White House for a few years …

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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Hope, faith and lymphoma – a friend’s story

This post fixes a gaping lacuna in this blog by adding a Page.

Tim Page is a dear friend with whom it has been a privilege and fun to journey with for .. well let’s say quite a while. Here’s Tim’s typically honest reflection on facing reappearance of aggressive lymphoma and a subsequent life or death stem-cell transplant. Glad to aid and abet a patient ‘on the run’ from doctors for a day.

“There either is a god or there is not; there is a ‘design’ or not.” ~ Christopher Hitchens

16-December-2013.  Tomorrow, I enter Belfast City Hospital for stem cell transplant, following three months of chemotherapy for relapse of aggressive lymphoma.  Today, without seeking medical permission (!), I’m taking ‘A Dublin Day’, in a more physically precarious state than I’ll admit to anyone, to buy Christmas presents in Dublin’s Kilkenny Shop.

On the train, I read the late Christopher Hitchens’ book ‘Mortality’.  Eloquently, he shows that people of faith have no monopoly on appreciating beauty or railing against injustice.

A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so.’

I meet Patrick Mitchel, Director of Studies at Irish Bible Institute.  Patrick is my oldest friend, since Sullivan Prep in Holywood, 1967.  We have lunch in Trinity College before he returns to work.  I go shopping.  Mindful that this may be my last Christmas, significant thought and budget go into fitting gifts for the women in my life!

I get a taxi to the Institute around 5-ish.  Exhausted, I’m given soup and bread before a tour around the impressive college.  I’m a manager in BT, not a theologian.  However, provoked by traumas personal and global, I ask Patrick my perennial question ‘So, does everything work out OK in the end?  Does Love win?’  We don’t arrive at a tidy answer.

Patrick gets me onto the Enterprise.  Half an hour later I discover he has slipped a gift of ‘Surprised by Hope’, by Anglican Tom Wright, into the Kilkenny Shop carrier.  Unexpectedly, the understanding expounded in this book sustains me through the months ahead.

17-December-2013, and back into hospital for high-dose ‘conditioning’ chemo, which kills the immune system, before bags of previously harvested stem cells will be returned on Christmas Eve.  Ascending in the lift up to Ward 10 North, I recall David Tennant’s final words before his Doctor Who regeneration, ‘I don’t want to go!’ and say to Ruth I’m quite OK if we go home right now.  Ruth says we’re heading for ‘Tim Version 2’ and, hand-held, I’m firmly guided back across the threshold of 10 North into isolation Bay J.  I say to the Nurse that I’m terrified of the procedure – possible risks and definite side effects.  ‘That’s easy.  All you have to do is keep breathing.’

During this challenging month, physiologically and emotionally, my ‘shields are down’.  Mindful of suffering on the Ward and suffering of friends, I can’t cope with news items such as Hurricane Agaton in the Philippines.  Instead, on recommendation of my son Downey, I listen to Mumford & Sons sing ‘Ghosts That We Know

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold on with all of my might
Just promise me that we’ll be alright

I do hold on, but will we be alright?   Or does each life end only in putrefaction or crematorium ashes?

As Tim version 1.0 recedes so that, hopefully, Tim version 2.0 can emerge, I share day-by-day the dying Christopher Hitchens’ heartfelt appreciation of friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature and music.

And also, over time, Tom Wright’s exposition of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection sinks in.

The night before He dies, Jesus says: ‘Because I live, you also will live.’

On Sunday morning, Mary goes with spices, expecting to anoint a decaying body.  Instead, she is first to see the risen Lord, but misperceives Him to be the gardener.  Somehow, His appearance is changed.  His resurrected body represents both continuity of life and God’s ‘future-arrived-in-the-present’ (p.57).

With the church at Colossae, Paul used the phrase ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’.  Until now, I had thought of that in terms of each individual’s private experience.  However, as Tom Wright says

‘When God “saves” people in this life, by working through His Spirit to bring them to faith, and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos.  What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate “salvation”; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.’ (p212)

Now, writing late in 2014, I’m back to health, work, church and the gym.

Tim Version 2.0 has a firmer hope that there is a designer of this world created as good, with a plan to make all things new again, inaugurated via an empty tomb.

However, I have no tidy answer for people suffering abuse, disease, poverty, severe learning difficulty or in conflict areas.

Since re-entering normal life, I have been in the presence of people who have suffered beyond imagination and yet have shown courage, cheer and somehow a generative approach for others.

Jesus calls us friends, not servants.  But, ‘Hope’ is a verb, an action word.  As we pray for His Kingdom to come, what might we do to work out our prayer?

Published in the Irish Methodist Newsletter, Jan 2015 issue.

Photographic devotions

Today someone kindly sent us some photos in the post from years back. (How nice to get a letter with a handwritten note as well!) This coincided with my backing up of photos from computer onto a spare hard-disk – they take up a crazy amount of space now. These are just the digital ones – let alone older photos (and slides!) in boxes in the attic that one day I’d like to digitise.

This got me thinking about photographs – their purpose and meaning. Why do we so deeply value them? I’d hate to lose them that’s for sure. They would be one of the first things I’d want to rescue if the house was burning down (guess I should have them backed up on the cloud!)

In the not so very distant past, you had to think carefully about camera use – processing film was expensive and slow. You only took pictures of special occasions or places – or hired in experts. Now, with Facebook, Instragram – and videos on YouTube – images have just become another means of self-expression and instant communication; an immediate and convenient way to document our lives in graphic detail.

I don’t do Facebook, but the other day my daughter was showing me photos that she is tagged in by Facebook friends; very useful and fun, but also a public record that a person has little or no control over what goes up there.

A while back Instagram was bought by Facebook for a nifty $1 billion – see here for 10 good reasons why.  If reason 5 is true, or even mostly true (and since I don’t do Facebook can’t really comment) that ‘most people are on Facebook to look at other people’s photos’ this raises the question of why are so obsessed with pictures? 

Like many pieces of technology, I think that photographs are neutral in themselves but can be used in positive or negative ways.

Some negatives (wee pun there 😉 )

famous selfie1. Self at the centre:

From the ubiquitous ‘selfie’, to being at a gig the other night in the Olympia in Dublin and having constantly try to see past the (insert suitable adjective here) people in front with hands raised high holding smart phones videoing the concert, there’s ample evidence that we love a bit of photographic narcissism.

At the receiving end, didn’t the Queen comment the other week about seeing nothing but a sea of smart phones pointing at her when she looks out into a crowd? Or someone who got married recently told me that when she came down the aisle, rather than seeing the smiling eye of friends and family, all she saw was camera lens and phones. Has the screen has become a means of mediating life itself?  Have we become almost unable to experience life without feeling we have to record, and therefore somehow own it?

2. A false source of identity? Does our apparently limitless fascination with images of ourselves and those we love and like, act as a way of self-validation and affirmation? We create a carefully constructed profile on Facebook or LinkedIn or wherever. We project an idealised image of ourselves to the world.  From a Christian perspective, self-worth, identity, purpose and meaning are found outside ourselves; not in a partially real imagined self, but, as Paul would put it, ‘in Christ’. There is no need (or ability) to pretend with God – he knows our true selves, and gives himself in sacrificial love precisely because he knows what we are really like – sinners in need of his grace and forgiveness.

Some Positives: photos and eschatological hope

A photograph freezes time; it captures a moment. Looking at the image later brings back the moment, the person, the experience, the feeling. Getting those photos in the post took us back to a completely different life from our current one. That’s what I love about photos – over time they compile a narrative of your life and the lives of others around you. They record (sometimes painfully) old friendships now gone for one reason or the other, but also sweet moments of joy. And as you get older, they act as a reminder of the brevity and preciousness of life. They remind us, I think, of a deep instinct or desire, that life matters. We desire significance and meaning and relationship for the very reason that God has made us that way.

Macbeth, that cheerful fella, may have said this

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

But Christians cannot agree: for the believer life is going somewhere. This life, which we document so thoroughly these days, is not an end in itself. It is a narrative and journey that Christians can live with hope, not because of something we have done or achieved (whether captured as an image or not), but because of what God has done in Christ.

Put it this way – none of the very best experiences you have captured on camera will be able to match what comes next ….

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lasting Work

work mattersThis is the last of a few posts giving a flavour of R Paul Stevens’ book pithy and thought-provoking little book Work Matters: lessons from Scripture

Towards the end he has a reflection on work and the future, when for many work is something to be endured and lacks any telos.

What then is work that carries spiritual significance – even into the new age to come?

He rejects a sacred / secular divide that sees explicitly ‘Christian’ work as that which really matters – stuff like preaching, evangelism, Bible study etc. Behind such a split is a dualism between the ‘spiritual’ (good)  and the ‘material’ (bad).

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the outpouring of the eschatological Spirit are both powerful indicators of how the future is already here in the present.  Stevens sees continuity (not annhilation) between this world and the new creation.

Stevens goes to three key Pauline texts on work. The eternal significance of our work lies in relationship with the living resurrected Lord.

1 Cor 3:12-15 ‘if anyone builds on this foundation[Christ] their work will be shown for what it is ..’

1 Cor 13:13 ‘The greatest of these remain: faith, hope and love’

1 Cor 15:58 ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord for you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’

There is, Stevens argues, then hope of redemption of not only our lives or of creation but also our work.  The damage done by negative work – the environmental, social, cultural and political scars left by destructive work – may yet be transfigured in the new creation.

How’s this for a positive vision of daily work in light of future hope to think about next Monday morning?

Clearly, through our daily work we leave our mark on the cosmos and our environment, on government, culture, neighborhoods, families, and even on the principalities and powers. The Bible hints that in some way beyond our imagination our marks are permanent. The theological truth that undergirds this fascinating and challenging line of exploration is the statement that Christ is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and firstborn from the grave (1:18). If Christ is truly the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from the grave, then all work has eternal consequences, whether homemaking or being a stockbroker. This brings new meaning to those whose toil is located in so-called secular work – in the arts, education, business, politics, the environment, and the home. Not only are ordinary Christians priests of creation past and present; they, along with missionaries, pastors, and Christian educators, are shaping the future of creation in some significant way. This means that we are invited in Christ to leave beautiful marks on creation, on the environment, family, city, workplace, and nation. (158-9)

The Spirit, suffering, hope, lament, prayer and other things

A close friend, whom I love, is suffering right now – along with his family.

And isn’t it the case that the reality of suffering, especially of those we know, forces to the fore the question of how we think about suffering theologically? For how we respond to suffering reveals much of how we really think about God.

As a comparatively rich westerner, I’m conscious that it is all too easy to devalue that word to mean worries over job insecurity, a low bank balance or forgoing buying nice Christmas presents. Nor does it mean not being able to wear a cross around your neck at work.

No, I’m talking about the suffering caused by bombings of churches in Pakistan, the killing of Christians in Syria or imprisonment for your faith in China.

I’m also talking of the suffering of living with debilitating sickness, fighting long battles with cancer, losing yourself in mental illness or watching helplessly as a loved one dies and living with that grief every day.

At the huge risk of trivializing centuries of thinking about theodicy, suffering, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (this is only a blog post after all), I’ll hesitantly suggest that there are at least two distinct popular Christian tendencies to the ‘brute fact’ of human suffering.

1. A tendency towards fatalistic pessimism

Suffering is part and parcel of the fallen human condition. It’s actually pretty impossible to imagine life without suffering and pain and a provisionality that ends in death.

In the words of Qoheleth, suffering is only a matter of time: there will be a time to dance, but also a time to mourn; a time to laugh but also a time to weep.  You may, especially if you are wealthy, have all sorts of protective layers in place to insulate you from suffering for as long as possible, but those layers can be ripped away in an instant. Money has its limits.

Christians after all, follow a crucified Messiah, and should have fairly robust and realistic theologies of suffering.  To put it in flowery academic language, bad things happen to God’s people, just as much as the next person. There are no guarantees of special treatment.

Or perhaps, going back to bombs in Pakistan, bad things happen to Christians even more than the next person. For a lot of believers today (and throughout the history of the church) being a Christian is most definitely bad for your health.

Suffering, in this framework, is something not to be welcomed (you’d have to be a masochist to do that) but it is something to be faced and accepted and expected. Prayers here are more for strength to endure what comes, rather than urgent pleas for healing and removal of suffering. There is a tendency to fatalism and at times it gets close to seeing God as the author of all suffering.  Whatever happens is his will.

This can lead to an emphasis on the cross; death, suffering and self-denial that is unattractive, life-denying and joyless. These are the guys who take the budgie’s swing out its cage on the Sabbath. If they aren’t going to have fun, then no-one else is either.

2.  A tendency towards naïve optimism

Christians are not only followers of a crucified Messiah but a resurrected Lord. They are also people of the empowering Spirit of God poured out at Pentecost. The Spirit is the gift of God to all who believe. He empowers for mission, guides, renews and freely gives his gifts for service. It is the Spirit who applies the victory of God in Christ: he brings life, unites believers with Christ, heals, gives eschatological hope and whose fruit is attractive and appealing – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In this sense, the Christian life is life lived to the full in the here and now; it’s the future kingdom life in the present.

But it’s possible to make so much of victory, power, triumph, future hope now, that it leaves little room for lament, failure, opposition and difficulty. Symptoms of this optimistic ‘super-spirituality’ might include things like the following:

– a taboo of talking and thinking about death. In the past, Dr Neill tells me, there were whole traditions of how to prepare to die well. Nowadays, our deaths are meekly handed over to doctors and omniscient medicine to deal with.

– the eclipse of wisdom tradition such as the Psalms of lament in our worship

– a theology of emotional comfort where our prayers are for the avoidance of trials, difficulties and pain because God is assumed to be someone who is both able and willing to ensure we don’t suffer or have unpleasant experiences.

– where Christian faith becomes a resource to enable me to live a happy life. I’m loved and accepted and OK as I am. So there is little reverence and fear of God and the word ‘holiness’ sounds terribly old fashioned.

3. A Paradox

Now, I don’t have a grand ‘third way’ that charts an obvious path between these two poles. They both have much truth. I simply suggest that they need each-other for there is a deep-rooted paradox to the Christian life.

The paradox is that that there is no incompatibility between having the Spirit and experiencing suffering. Jesus, God’s Son, was anointed with the Spirit and immediately embarks on a mission that involves opposition, violence and ultimately death. John the Baptist likewise. Stephen who is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ also is executed. Paul is led by and empowered by the Spirit but endures continual persecution, hardships, and finally in Rome the same fate as Jesus, John and Stephen. Seeing a pattern emerge?

The story of the church in Acts is of the triumph and victory of God. This includes dramatic healing and visible foretastes of the future kingdom of God in the present, but most often in and through suffering and weakness. The cross and Spirit are not in opposition to each other. It is the Spirit who enables and empowers believers to face suffering and persecution. And it is through that suffering that God’s power is evident to all. There is a privilege to suffer persecution and even death as Jesus did.

It seems then, that Christians are neither to be fatalistic pessimists nor naïve optimists. But are to be empowered and strengthened by the eschatological Spirit to face suffering with dignity and hope. They do not see God as the author of evil, they look forward with him to a world rid of suffering and death, disease and tears, violence and persecution – a world his Son has died to redeem. Suffering will not have the last word. It is precisely in the midst of suffering and weakness that God’s power is seen at work.

So how I am to pray for my friend and his family?

With tears. With urgency for healing. With lament at pain. With hope in the goodness and victory of God. Pray with me if you can.

Storykeeping for 2013?

Thanks to all who have passed through this little part of the blogosphere in 2012 and especially to those who have joined in the conversations.

Some thoughts on ‘faithinireland’ to close the year

There are a number dominant narratives abroad that continue to shape public discourse here and most of them aren’t pretty. Maybe you can add your own, but these are some prompted by the paper today.

And the details don’t really matter nor whether the narratives are rationally justified or not – the point is their bigger ‘narrative sense’. A narrative doesn’t have to be true to be real. It doesn’t have to (and can’t) capture reality of day to day life on the ground either. But it does capture an attitude and interpretation of reality within contemporary Irish culture.

Frustrated Justice: over four years into the banking collapse and no trials or convictions. Increasing clarity over Ireland’s enforced bailout of the banking system by the ECB and the transparent immorality of foisting tens of billions of recklessly accrured private debt onto taxpayers (and their children). A desire for justice to be done but little or no real expectation that it can or will be.

Rage: against politicans, developers, the banks, Eurocrats – probably contributing to the suicide of junior minister Sean McEntee after sustained hate mail. ‘McEntee’s death exposes a sickening culture of hate’ is how one article title goes.

Suicide: dread of and helplessness caused by high profile young teen suicides and the perception of increased rate of suicide due to financial crisis.

Consumer dreams: the furious modernist optimism of consumerism continues unabated, perhaps even speeded up, selling the dream of a better life around the corner. This consumer ‘gospel’ is the consistent and persistent purveyor of  ‘good news’ in a culture saturated with bad news.

Fatalism: with about €200 billion of unpayable debt, 6 austerity budgets with more to come, combined with accelerating emigration, a sense of powerlessness, and a lack of belief in leaders to change things, there ain’t much sense of hope around.

Envy: at those who are perceived to have done well out of the boom years, and especially those in protected well paid state employment.

The Christian gospel has always been a dramatically alternative narrative of good news. Ireland’s current climate brings the sheer otherness of the gospel into sharp relief.

It’s a narrative that speaks of infinite love of the triune God; of incarnation, kingdom life breaking into this lost world through the Spirit, resurrection of the living Lord, and future hope for all who have life through him. It’s a gospel of forgiveness, grace and  justice in the here and now but only perfectly enacted in the future. It’s a gospel of community life formed around word and sacrament that speak of a different story to that of fear, hopelessness, anger or superficial promises of happiness through consumption.

On the one hand, this good news changes nothing. Ireland and the world is still broken.

On the other hand, this good news changes everything.

I don’t know about you but I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. But my simple hope for 2013 is to keep reminding myself daily of this other story.

For Christians are storykeepers; called to keep contrasting the gospel story with other narratives that shout and yell incessantly that they are what makes reality real.  So I hope to keep asking and reflecting and trying to share on this blog during 2013 what difference that gospel makes in the messiness and complexity of everyday life.

Hope you’ll stick around and help figure out some answers together. And in the meantime ….

Best wishes for a joyful NEW YEAR

Evolving Irishness (9) the disintegration of ‘faithinireland’

A few months ago I did a series on evolving Irishness – one that never quite got finished. I think it ended with this post.

I was going to look at the unravelling of the three cords that held classic Irish nationalism together – the territorial, the sacral, and the noble historical narrative of freedom and liberation.

Well to fast forward via some symbolic moments – two in the last week:

Territorial: sorted and parked gratefully in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the moderation of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution to include Unionist consent.

Sacral: on 21 March 2012 the publication of the Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland didn’t quite put it this way, but I would – the narrative of a triumphalistic 20th century ‘Catholic Ireland’ ended in a “a great sense of pain and shame”. Whatever the future of Catholicism in Ireland it is going to be a profoundly different sort of story in the 21st century.

Historical: As Diarmuid Ferriter concludes in this Irish Times article, the publication last week of the Mahon Report on top of Moriarty and others, may well lead to a fundamental re-assessment of the entire historical narrative.

As late as 1997 Tom Garvin was proposing convincingly that Irish politicians, despite mistakes and sins, managed to create and sustain a viable independent state against all the odds.

Now we have the most popular Taoiseach of the modern era jumping before he was pushed out of his own political party and being one of the most (conveniently) reviled figures in Ireland alongside Seanie Fitzpatrick of Anglo Irish Bank.

Ferriter writes

But the cumulative affect of the various tribunal reports, most recently Mahon, may require political scientists and historians to question or qualify some of their earlier assumptions about the achievements of independence.

For fundamental questions are everywhere today on what sort of Irish State developed since Partition. These are words from Mahon and he’s being all judicial and polite:

“systemic and endemic corruption”

a devaluing of democracy itself

“corruption affected every level of Irish political life”

“little appetite on the part of the State’s political or investigative authorities to combat it effectively or to sanction those involved.”

“general apathy on the part of the public towards . . . corruption” and its “corrosive and destructive” consequences

I said ‘conveniently’ above about Bertie, because a lot of people voted him and Fianna Fail in repeatedly, especially in the 2007 election when what Mahon was talking about was public knowledge. Mahon poses questions about the very structure of Irish political and social life – one’s Fintan O’Toole picks up and says this

And what, finally, of the other big part of the story: public tolerance for toxic political behaviour? It seems obvious now to point to the rage and contempt hurled in Ahern’s direction as evidence of a great sea change in attitudes.

A sceptic might point to Michael Lowry’s 14,104 votes in North Tipperary last year. And a cynic might ask the most uncomfortable question of all: would Bertie still be elected taoiseach today if the Celtic Tiger were still roaring along? Given the choice between easy money and hard morality, it is not at all obvious that the Irish people would not, yet again, suspend its disbelief in Bertie’s laughable lies.

Ferriter concludes:

As we edge towards the centenary of the events that comprised the revolution of the early 20th century, we face a stark conclusion: this is a State bereft of meaningful sovereignty due to its bankruptcy and a State whose governing culture has been exposed as rotten.

We may have little to cheer about in 2016.

Blimey – when you have Irish judges, historians and left-leaning journalists all sounding like Ian Paisley c 1960s ranting about the corruption, authoritarianism and darkness of ‘Catholic Ireland’, whatever you may think of Dev, you know things have gone rather pear-shaped for his vision of Irish sovereignty, freedom and integrity fueled by strong spiritual values.

Given the title of this blog, allow me this 😉 – faithinireland has disintegrated. ‘Catholic Ireland’, in terms of an overarching complete package identity of national identity, culture and religion, has been tried and found wanting.

There is a sense of a need for a new beginning and a fresh narrative around today and it isn’t clear (to me anyway) what it might be or where it might come from. Given the austerity being imposed by the Troika, being enthusiastic Europeans  is less appealing. Sinn Fein are doing well but only in a reactive way.

If that’s one rather bleak sketch of the current culture, what implications has this for ‘gospel ministry’? Or to put it another way, what has the Christian narrative to offer in a culture suffering from a crisis of hope?

Comments, as ever, welcome.