Thursday, October 26, 2006

The scariest thing ...

Last Sunday night we had the last in a series of sermons on Suffering by Rob Smith, called "Only the suffering God can help". It was really good, talking about the passibility of God (though have discovered that’s a contentious point), the grief of God, and the tears and cross of Jesus, and then the suffering people of God, and reasons why that might be ... and it got me thinking along those lines. Then on Monday I received my DVDs in the mail from the US on "How Should we Then Live?" by Francis Schaeffer (was so chuffed), featuring a bonus interview on living with sickness and suffering. I came home after bible study leader’s meeting and couldn’t resist watching that interview. It was so very good. Edith Schaeffer discusses what daily faithfulness means in the face of suffering and Francis talks about the theological possibilities and issues. Oh to be able to live as that couple did!

Then on Tuesday night in bible study we started studying Job. It was interesting on Sunday night that the cosmic dimension wasn’t included as a reason for suffering – only the discipline of God and persecution for the sake of the Gospel (actually, Job and "unexplained suffering" was covered in a different sermon I temporarily failed to recall). Francis mentions it, saying that Job never knew what was behind his suffering, and we don’t know either. But the fact that Job never knows seems to indicate that an appropriate response to suffering and an appropriate view of God is more the point than finding out the cause of suffering. Francis Schaeffer talks about trusting in the wisdom of God and says at one point "nothing scares me more than that I could ask God for anything right now, and get it – because I don’t know everything". That’s quite an admirable place to be when you are dying of cancer.

I have been reflecting on the state of my own life also lately and the other night I went back to an old journal and found this quote from ‘Finding God’ by Larry Crabb, which is a book I read repeatedly. He says:
Finding God means to face all of life, both good and bad, with a spirit of trust. We have a higher calling than finding joy in good things and working through bad things: we must reflect confidence in God in all our relationships and activities, in all our joys and sorrows ... When we approach God with the attitude of an unworthy beggar whose only hope is another’s kindness ... with his generous heart overflowing he refuses to withhold anything from us that will help us know him better. In his own sovereign way, without consulting us, he patiently arranges things in our lives so we experience him as the satisfier of our souls, as our loving bridegroom, as a good God who never intends anything but our joy.
And so then I bought a little stuffed elephant - which now sits on my computer at work. I saw this little elephant and was inspired by the Dr Seuss book 'Horton Hatches the Egg', in which Horton sits on his egg through storms and snow and catastrophes and the line is "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and elephant’s faithful one hundred percent". It’s to remind me to be faithful, not just in the attending of church and being on time for meetings kind of way, but in my perspectives, my attitudes, in that spirit of trust in the goodness of God ...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Saturday with Morrie

I’ve given up fighting the urge to diarise. Yesterday afternoon I wept for a good hour and then some – as long as it takes to watch 'Tuesdays with Morrie'. If you haven’t seen this movie then you should (yes, am going to force my own movie opinions on the world, just this once). The book, of course, is better, but it is based on the true story of a sociology professor who gets Lou-Gehrig's disease (ALS) and decides to make his dying his last great lesson. A former sociology student goes to visit him – on Tuesdays - where he learns the ‘meaning of life’. The catch phrase of the dying professor becomes "we must love each other or die", from W.H. Auden’s poem ‘1 September, 1939’ and among his lessons he mentions such things as the regret of pride, vanity and hardness of heart, the importance of family ... It’s quite simple really, but it’s the sort of movie that makes me want to change my life, to centre it more around people and relationships, to spend more time with my grandparents ... to listen to that "bird on my shoulder" ...
But as I sat there longing for this and that to be different I also began to wonder if that was a particularly helpful response ... Sure, I could certainly change some things for the better, but we have to consider, in our current circumstances, the sovereignty of God as it works out in our lives also.

I remembered reading, in Larry Crabb’s book 'God of my Father', this: "Everyone’s life is a story whose point is discovered only when that story is lifted up into the larger story of God ... the plot of our larger story, which gives meaning to all our lesser tales, is made known only in the book God wrote. Life never reveals its meaning by itself ...". And that, very sadly, for all the good things Morrie learnt by an honest look around him, is the meaning that as far as we can know from his book Morrie missed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

If anyone would come after me ...

Haven’t blogged for a while ... I have been reading this good book you see. Something is brewing, but just for now, something else I read in said book (Adam Bede, by George Eliot) that got me thinking is the passage below from a letter written by Dinah, the pure and lovely Methodist. George Eliot actually abandoned her Christianity (and "lived in sin" with G. Lewes, which flies in the face of so much of the instructional narrative of Adam Bede, as well as her other novels) so I read her insights cautiously. But this is what Dinah writes:
These thoughts have been borne in on me of late, and I have see with new clearness the meaning of those words, "If any man love me, let him take up my cross." I have heard this enlarged on as if it meant the troubles and persecutions we bring on ourselves by confessing Jesus. But surely that is a narrow thought. The true cross of the Redeemer was the sin and sorrow of this world – that was what lay heavy on his heart – and that is the cross we shall share with him, that is the cup we must drink of with him, if we would have any part in that Divine Love which is one with his sorrow.
For starters, the verse has actually been misquoted in that it says "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (emphasis mine) - in Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:24 and Luke 9:23 of the ESV. If anyone out there has reason to believe the original Greek is ambiguous at that point then please let me know. So, we are not actually taking up the cross of Jesus himself, and are actually incapable of bearing the sin and sorrow of this world in the way that Jesus did, in taking them TO the cross to set the world free of them. We're taking up our own cross. George Eliot is right in saying that this passage is generally enlarged upon to mean those things we forsake, or suffer, or bear for the sake of following Jesus to heaven. But is she also right in saying that that is a narrow thought? Does, or should, our interpretation include the sin and sorrow of this world? How different would the application of that verse be if it did? (In context, Dinah goes out to work amongst all the sick, poor and sorrowing, and it is from there that she writes this letter.) I’m still thinking about it myself (and I haven’t quite finished the book yet, so this blog can’t expect my full attention) ... Your comments and thoughts appreciated ...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Remembering love

Last Saturday I went to the Christian Writer’s Day, which Karen has blogged about here (on 8th October). As the name suggests, it’s a gathering of Christians who are interested in writing. I’m always struck with panic over the preliminary writing task, which is when you are given a topic, about 15 minutes to write about it, and then you get to read out what you have come up with to everybody there (does that idea not frighten anyone else?).

The topic for this day was remembering when you were in love. As Karen says we "had to think back to the time when they were in love and write about that period of their lives—describing what they did, what their environment was like, etc.—but without mentioning the fact that they were in love. The results were quite interesting. I am trying to work out whether it feels different to be in love if you are a guy as opposed to a girl, and so far there doesn't seem to be much of a difference ...".

The thing is, I actually felt like the honorary boy of the group reading out my piece. In the panic of the exercise I grabbed at the first thing that came to mind, which goes way, way, back to the beginning of such things and started writing. And it was very different to the melancholy, "romantic" writing of some, describing a look, a smile, the meaning of a moment and so on.

If anybody recognizes themselves in this story, well it’s ancient history:

I stood behind the start line with the usual stomach-churning nervousness, though that was never so bad before the 1500m as before the 100m or 200m – those first few seconds after gun fire were not so win-or-lose crucial. The fellow with gun poised looked down at my Dunlop volleys, all the running shoes our single-parent existence afforded, with scorn and said "what are you running in? – tennis shoes?". I coloured in teenage embarrassment as all the competitors looked in the direction of my feet.

The gun finally fired and off we all ran. Never one to employ sophisticated athletic strategies I just decided today to do the best by my tennis shoes and head for the front of the mob as we rounded the first bend, partly driven by the gun-firer's scorn. And then I heard it, the "go Ali" from the long jump pits. And there he was, Simon (not his real name) from Peel Highschool (not his real school either – old loves always remain a sensitive spot) smiling, waving and cheering me on. I won that race by 50 seconds.

And that’s all I had. But it’s amazing what a little encouragement from that "someone special" can do for us isn’t it? We can run faster than we ever have before. It outweighs the scorn of a hundred others. It changes a bad day into a good day in an moment. And there’s numerous lines of poetry that could be inserted here ... but, you’ll have to excuse my current obsession with George Eliot. I was reading something the other day, which is a slightly more poignant description of what it means to be in love, slightly more womanly too. It describes a moment between Adam and Hetty. Adam loves Hetty and Hetty is newly in love with Arthur, which alters her behaviour to Adam thus (Hetty is a pretty monster in her vanity and absence of concern for other human beings, but I can tell that the author is working on me such that Hetty’s coming ruin will temporarily ruin me too):
And Hetty? You know quite well that Adam was mistaken about her. Like many another man, he thought the signs of love for another were signs of love towards himself. When Adam was approaching unseen by her, she was absorbed as usual in thinking and wondering about Arthur’s possible return: the sound of any man’s footstep would have affected her just in the same way – she would have felt it might be Arthur before she had time to see, and the blood that forsook her cheek in the agitation of that momentary feeling would have rushed back again at the sight of any one else just as much as the sight of Adam. He was not wrong in thinking that a change had come over Hetty: the anxieties and fears of a first passion, with which she was trembling, had become stronger than vanity, had given her for the first time that sense of helpless dependence on another’s feeling which awakens the clinging deprecating womanhood even in the shallowest girl that can ever experience it, and creates in her a sensibility to kindness which found her quite hard before. For the first time Hetty felt that there was something soothing to her in Adam’s timid yet manly tenderness: she wanted to be treated lovingly – O, it was very hard to bear this blank of absence, silence, apparent indifference, after those moments of glowing love! She was not afraid that Adam would tease her with love-making and flattering speeches like her other admirers: he had always been so reserved to her: she could enjoy without any fear the sense that this strong brave man loved her, and was near her. It never entered into her mind that Adam was pitiable too – that Adam, too, must suffer one day.
Helpless dependence is indeed what comes of the power of another to so alter our day with one smile. But it actually made me think that unrequited love is good for us, in creating that heightened sensibility to kindness from others ...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Closing time

This is not a real blog, I am just going to blah on about music. Lastnight, while hanging about in the city waiting for bible study to start, I ended up in JB Hi-Fi, which is always kind of dangerous, and I bought an old and cheap Tom Waits CD. I was flicking through Tom Waits just because I discovered that Sarah McLachlan sings a cover of one of his songs "OI'55", and then I discovered that this was on a CD together with a song that Marc Cohn sings a cover of "I hope that I don't fall in love with you" (he sings that on the movie "The Prince and Me", which is a fairly silly movie but it features Marc Cohn singing Tom Waits and Bach's Cello Concerto No. 1, which is redeeming) and that this CD could be mine for less than $10. The CD is called Closing Down, and so far I really quite like it, especially the latter song, which is presently being repeated quite often ... Think of the sort of music that goes with the late-night closing of a restaurant or pub - that mellow, everyone's gone, sweep the floor and straighten the furniture type of music - and that is exactly what you have ... and Tom's voice is nowhere near as rasping on this CD as it is later on (don't mistake me for an indiscriminate Tom Waits fan - I am not - am very selective about my Tom Waits).

I was also pleased to discover that Sarah McLachlan has a new CD coming out soon, on which she sings a cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" - looking forward to that!

... I wish I had a river I could skate away on ...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

There I plant my foot

Here’s another excerpt from a different classic, Jane Eyre, which I was reminded of by yesterday’s excerpt from Adam Bede. This is Rochester urging Jane to be his mistress (while the lunatic wife Jane has just learnt of remains locked away), and Jane’s ensuing struggle:

... Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law – no man being injured by the breach? for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.’

This was true: and while he spoke my very Conscience and Reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger – look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair – soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’

Still indomitable was the reply – ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

And it’s almost a silly endeavour to try and elaborate, as the beauty of such story telling is it perfectly conveys its point. Both of these excerpts, and their wider stories, illuminate the importance of character formation in life’s times of support and strength, to fortify ourselves against those assaults on our best principles when they come. They illustrate the meaning of 2 Peter 1:5-7.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Another day and raising a smoked glass

I am going to break my own rule and diarise again I think, because yesterday afternoon I did something I have never done before - and that was meet my friend Cath after work to go kayaking in Canada Bay! You might think that this sounds like a lovely afternoon, and it certainly was - down by the water as the sun set over it and gentle waves lapped the little beach. But you need to understand that this was no ordinary kayak. It was a "pro-kayak" – being seven metres in length and scarcely any wider than my behind, with its own rudder operated by foot peddles, that being the sort of watercraft workmanship that it was. Trying to stay upright in this kayak was no easy task, and not feeling overly inclined to swim in Sydney Harbour last night I had quite an anxious time of it! Much as the idea of paddling in the bay appealed to me, I climbed out of that wobbly vessel with no small amount of relief, happy to let my expert friend paddle off into the sunset and leave me on the shore.

I’ve tried to think of some sort of biblical link to this story, but all that comes to mind is that I now understand why the bible writers thought that there would be no sea in heaven – it is indeed the place of chaos for an amateur in a long, skinny kayak! There can be a sea in heaven, so long as my kayak is half as long and twice as wide.

After our paddle in the ocean we found a Thai restaurant in the Entertainment voucher book for dinner, and there we sat and played 10 days in Europe (went nicely with our Thai), to the bemusement of the staff, who found the place for our food covered by the continent and watched on surreptitiously and quizzically.

Anyway, I have been talking to a friend Michelle tonight over gelati as we strolled along Coogee beach (a group expedition to the Sheraton good food month "sugar hit" failed, but gelati by the beach was quite as good), who had a letter published in the SMH today (can’t seem to find a direct link to it), about couching our theological and biblical ideas in the voice of the people, and blogging, and reaching people in a post modern age (or whatever age we think we are now in) and using stories and so forth and so on ... And this is distantly related but I read something today in Adam Bede, that I thought one of the gems Eliot weaves into her novels, to focus our moral thoughts and poke us, through the lives and lenses of her characters. It’s long but I am going to write it out anyway. It’s a conversation between one Arthur and one Mr Irwine:

‘But I think it is hardly an argument against a man’s general strength of character, that he should be apt to be mastered by love. A fine constitution doesn’t insure one against small-pox or any other of those inevitable diseases. A man may be very firm in other matters, and yet be under a sort of witchery from a woman.’

‘Yes; but there’s this difference between love and small-pox, or bewitchment either – that if you detect the disease at an early stage and try change of air, there is every chance of complete escape, without any further development of symptoms. And there are certain alternative doses which a man may administer to himself by keeping unpleasant consequences before his mind: that gives you a sort of smoked glass through which you may look at the resplendent fair one and discern her true outline; though I’m afraid, by the by, the smoked glass is apt to be missing just at the moment it is most wanted. I daresay, now, even a man fortified with a knowledge of the classics might be lured into an imprudent marriage, in spite of the warning given him by the chorus in the Prometheus.’

The smile that flittered across Arthur’s face was a faint one, and instead of following Mr Irwine’s playful lead, he said quiet seriously – ‘Yes, that’s the worst of it. It’s a desperately vexatious thing, that after all one’s reflections and quiet determinations, we should be ruled by moods that one can’t calculate on beforehand. I don’t think a man ought to be blamed so much if he is betrayed into doing things in that way, in spite of his resolutions.’

‘Ah, but the moods lie in his nature, my boy, just as much as his reflections did, and more. A man can never do anything at variance with his own nature. He carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.’

‘Well, but one may be betrayed into doing things by a combination of circumstances, which one might never have done otherwise.’

‘Why, yes, a man can’t very well steal a bank-note unless the bank-note lies within convenient reach; but he won’t make us think him an honest man because he begins to howl at the bank-note for falling in his way.’

‘But surely you don’t think a man who struggles against a temptation into which he falls at last, as bad as the man who never struggles at all?’

‘No, my boy, I pity him, in proportion to his struggles, for they foreshadow the inward suffering which is the worst form of Nemesis. Consequences are unpitying. Our deeds carry their terrible consequences, quite apart from any fluctuations that went before – consequences that are hardly ever confined to ourselves. And it is best to fix our minds on that certainty, instead of considering what may be the elements of excuse for us ...’.

Unfortunately and ashamedly I have discovered a few grains of folly ...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why Bother Praying?

Tonight I am facilitating a discussion in my bible study group, in the temporary absence of my co-leader, and so we are going to pause from our current course of study to look at prayer. So, here is an essay I wrote some time ago in response to the question "Why bother praying if God has already determined what will happen?" which I have used as a base - and am going to plonk it here, because I have been too busy writing the study to blog :). (P.S. I wrote this essay shortly before Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne's book on prayer was published, incase you think they've said all this, or wonder why I didn't reference it.) Here it is:

The asking of this question usually arises, fundamentally, from an imbalance in understanding of the fact that God is both sovereign and personal. A skewed theological perspective can impact our perceptions of the reasons for, and efficacy of, prayer and result in a decrease in the activity of prayer. However, as Carson points out (1), the bible insists that we pray and constantly urges us to pray, such that something is amiss with our theology if it becomes a disincentive to pray.

A right view of prayer will come from a right view of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility for his actions, and will require an appropriate understanding of the mystery of the ways of God, such that these two truths are not held to be mutually exclusive or contradictory (1). Both of these propositions are supported by numerous passages of scripture, one example of which is Acts 4:27-28 in which Herod and Pilate are clearly held responsible for conspiring to crucify Jesus, yet also declared to be acting only according to what God’s will had foreordained. We should therefore be careful to avoid definitions that are not supported by the bible, such as the idea that "freedom", and ensuing responsibility, must entail power to act contrary to God’s will, when freedom is more appropriately aligned with the idea that humans behave in line with their own desires (1). A right view of prayer will also involve understanding that God is sovereign, but that he is also good, and stands behind good and evil asymmetrically, such that the working of good can be credited to him, but the working of evil to secondary agents (1). Finally, it will require an appropriate understanding of the nature of God, that he is both transcendent and personal, and therefore that he is free (1).

To arrive at a biblical view of prayer it is appropriate to study how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility function in the passages of scripture where prayer is mentioned (1). Those who pray in the scriptures, including Jesus at Gethsemane, regularly pray according to the plans that God has already revealed (1). In Daniel 9:2-19, Daniel is well aware that the period of the exile is about to end, and so sets to pray for what he knows is God’s will, that God would maintain his own integrity and keep his covenant. Similarly, Moses prays to God (Exodus 32:12), trusting in the promises that he knows God has made to make a great nation of Israel and that God will act in such a way as to keep those promises (1). Ezekiel 2:30-31 makes it plain that God expects godly believers to intercede with him, which is his own appointed means of bringing about his relenting from destruction in this situation, as it was with Moses. Thus we see that a sure knowledge of God’s sovereignty and his purposes never deters prayer in the Scriptures. James 4:2 and 5:16 claim that we do not have because we do not ask, and that the prayers of the righteous avail much, eliminating the possibility that prayer does not change anything. However, our prayers are not exempted from God’s sovereignty (1). Prayer changes things in that our prayers are God’s appointed means of bringing about his purposes, not that they change things absolutely, to the surprise of God (1). Calvin (2) states that nothing is promised to be expected from God, which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayers.

Prayer is thus a way for God’s people to articulate faith (3). It is putting faith into words and acknowledging that we trust God with the subject of our prayers, and know that he cares for us and will keep his promises (3). Calvin outlines the benefits to God’s people themselves that stem from prayer, including that we grow used to taking all things before God in prayer, that we are prepared to receive his gifts with gratitude and meditate on his kindness, reminded by our prayers that they come from him, and that we confirm his Providence, that his promises never fail and he is ever ready to help his people (2). Prayer, therefore, also brings glory to God as we give him credit and honour for being God, a God who cares and is able to act (3). Psalm 145:18 asserts that God is near to those who call on him. This and many other passages inform us that, far from it being superfluous for us to ask for those things which God has determined to give, God would have us recognise as answers to prayers those things that he generously gives (2). So too, Psalm 34:15 commends the providence of God in caring for his people, yet not to diminish the exercise of their faith in prayer (2). The act of praying declares that God is the sovereign ruler of the world and that we depend and rely on him for all things (3 & 4).

We therefore see that our view on the efficacy of, and reasons for, our prayer stems from our theology of who God is and how he interacts with his world, and that our theology is faulty if it hinders our praying. To quote Carson "the biblical emphasis on God’s sovereignty and on God’s personhood, if they function in our lives properly, will serve as powerful incentives to prayer and as direction for the way in which we approach God" and we shall come to appreciate that "It is worth praying to a sovereign God because he is free and can take action as he wills; it is worth praying to a personal God because he hears, responds and acts on behalf of his people ..." (1).

References

(1.) Carson, D.A. 1992. A Call to Spiritual Reformation – Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, US.

(2.) Calvin, J. 1996. Prayer. Matthias Media, Sydney, Australia.

(3.) Jensen, P. J. 2006. Notes from a sermon titled "What Happens When we Pray" given at St Andrew’s Cathedral, 13 March 2005.

(4.) Packer J.I. 1961. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Intervarsity Press, Leicester, England.