Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shepherds, stars, and angels

Angel's Wings by polska1 of
A poem by my friend, Loz...

The coming of the stars

For Ken Jolley

The night the stars descended, we were hunched as usual,
dozing in tattered bundles; heads down,
oblivious to the aching air. Only one was watchful.

When he cried out, a wolf scattered my fitful dreams.

I started, came to; beheld my staring mates, stark with wonder,
Arcing up, like young cedars struck by lightning
wedded to the sky by blue white flame, transmitting unearthly energy to the mud.
The sparking multiplied, and a roar like a great song underground
intensifying in eye- watering, naked power. I swore it were the last hour.

You ask how it was that they heard the voices clearer than I?
I’ve often wondered why, but am none the wiser. I was the junior,
always simpler, smaller, quieter than my friends. But even then I had my uses:
sleeping in the gateway, seeking the lost ones, fetching sandwiches.

It wasn’t how they picture it, you know: us all starry eyed,
united, trooping down the bright hillside hand in hand,
like kids following a painted sign to wonderland.
That meeting was fear itself. The others wept, transfixed.
My legs were wet and shaking as I crept between a cleft rock,
jammed my fingers in my ears and prayed and sobbed.

Later, when I reappeared, the stars were gone. My mates
returned and mocked me for hiding, gave me a ribbing, said
I’d missed a treat; “time of their lives” they laughed, exuberant, fiery eyed.
They were changed men. But were they mad? I didn’t know what to believe.
As my dear mum used to say; “tidings that come in a flash are usually bad”.

But now I understand, feel the same thrill they had. I know why
they went to tell the world what they’d seen, share the tale
with one and all. Me; I stayed within sight of the sheepfold wall.

People still seek me out to hear my piece.
I say what I know; that now I sing my flock a peaceful song,
that fear bids farewell as new love is born, how joy
can be found in the lowliest place of all; how happy
is the shepherd when the least among his sheep comes home.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Lord is my shepherd, I am depressed

Hands: photo by chriscandy of stock.xchngI love the honesty of the psalms. Here's a bible study I wrote for our church today, on Psalm 102.

'A prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint', this psalm expresses the agony of someone experiencing what we would today call depression. Every day seems empty; his sorrow feels physically painful [v.3]; his heart loses all vigour [v.4]; he forgets to eat and loses weight [v.4-5]; in sleepless nights he feels horribly alone, only able to think about those who are against him [v.7-8]; even pleasures loose their flavour [v.9]; he feels abandoned by God [v.10]: life is pointless [v.11].

What hope can there possibly be in such sorrow? In the second half of this psalm, this broken-hearted man lifts his sights towards God and His great purposes for 'Zion', His people [v.12-28]. He takes in the big picture of God’s purposes, which cannot fail. Not that this is some kind of 'quick fix' for his distress [see v.23-24]. But it reaches for comfort in the truth that God's plan for Zion includes the ultimate good for each of her members. Even their distress is part of God's larger scheme: their faithful endurance is not, in fact, meaningless.

Godly people in the Bible got depressed. Even Paul, who wrote 'Rejoice in the Lord always' [Phil.4:4] also wrote 'We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself' [2Cor.1:8]. Christian joy is not a denial of life’s very real pains, but a recognition that God’s overall plans for His people will prevail, that His love is eternal, and that, in the end, as one medieval saint wrote:
All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Obama on peace

"The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached - their fundamental faith in human progress - that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith - if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace - then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass..."
- Barack Obama

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Spectre of hector

Sometimes on this blog I opine. I did it recently about Christmas and got a range of responses, the most hilarious of which was a spammer promoting Christmas hampers. I did it a while back on a book, The Shack, and again got a range of responses.

Most of the responses I quite enjoy - both hurrahs from supporters and shaddups from opponents (many of whom are friends anyway). All in the spirit of healthy debate.

But - confession time - there is one riposte that does bother me a little.

It is the accusation of being a killjoy. Of course, it came up in the Christmas post (that is, my blog entry - no reference to cards depicting softly glowing feeding-troughs). "You have managed to take the fun out of Christmas faster than the Queen doing her annual speech naked" mourned one commenter. And some felt I should lighten up abut the Shack. After all, "it's just a novel", just for fun.

My contention is that while things - from Christmas pressies to Christian novels - may be "for fun" they do have a serious side and we shouldn't shy away from facing them down and, when necessary, making some radical changes to life as a result of the convictions we unearth.

Or... is that all rather, well - over-earnest? Therein lies my fear. The last person I want to become is some kind of moralising thought-policeman, determined to stop all enjoyment of anything. Frankly, enough people labour under that mistaken view of God, without me or anyone else adding to it.

It came home to me today when I read a thoughtful and serious Christian comment on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. (See I could see the point the writer was making. But I found myself having the same response I know some others have had to me: "Oh come on, it's just a story - lighten up..."

I ought, further, to confess my own secret relationship with the Twilight series. Please only read on if you promise not to tell. When my wife borrowed all four books from a friend I was initially scornful ("Mills and Boone meets Hammer Horror"). But she left the first book by the loo; I picked it up... Four books later, I admit: I was hooked. Actually, I've always liked a good yarn - mythical creatures? So much the better. I filtered out the rather embarrassing formulaic romance style and enjoyed Stephanie Meyer's imaginative ideas. Rather like Harry Potter - don't look for literary genius, but it's a good page-turner.

You might expect some Christians to be twitchy about a vampire story - just as they might a witches and wizards story. Personally, I've always taken something more like the C. S. Lewis line - "faith is imagination grown up" and all that. A good story is a good thing. Enjoy them, talk about them - sometimes with your children. (Incidentally, that was, broadly, the line taken in the blog on Twilight I referred to above: the writer there was making a different point, worried about a harmful model of romantic love as all-consuming.)

Come on. Life is to live! Lighten up! Enjoy a few innocent joys!

Oops. What about The Shack then? What about the holly and the ivy? Hoist by my own petard? Found out in my hypocrisy?

Possibly. Or is the point that one can be both? Serious and fun-loving, I mean. And, that loving fun doesn't mean abandoning all discernment.

I - seriously - believe that Christmas is pretty much unredeemable, too mired as it is in materialism and sentimentalised religion. And I submit that as my considered and, yes, somewhat heavy conclusion. But - please God - I intend to enjoy a few days off and make sure my children enjoy them, too. It'll be a far cry from the ridiculous depiction of Scroogelike gloom written by an opponent of the Jesus Army on a web forum the other day:

A 7-year-old in the Jesus Army on Xmas day? will be a complete non-event. There will be no Santa and no stockings, no mince pie left out (if you did some strange person would eat it). No decorations, no tree, no cards or any reminder that normal people are having fun. The day will start the same as any other day eating stale bread and cold leftovers from the night before, then it will be on with the chores the sisters cleaning and the brothers cleaning cars. Lunchtime will arrive and all the freaks will gather and bang their tambourines and pray against the forces of evil which are making normal people have fun at this time of year, then will come the same old food (stale bread and mouldy cheese with cold soup). Dinner will end and the brothers will slope off to the kitchen to wash up while the women drag their weary carcasses to do knitting or some other mundane job.

Apart from my amusement at the Dickensian language, I found this sad - and alarming. Man, I thought, is that what people think is the only alternative to a "Sainsbury's and Coca-Cola Christmas"? Worse still, has my tub-thumping contributed to the polarization?

Of course, I did try to express positively what my family and I - and our community - would be doing at Christmas (I wrote about love and - shock! - fun). And I tried to convey some of the good I saw in The Shack. But the danger is still there: people can dismiss me as a crackpot religious killjoy, parodying what I say into morose sourness.

So be it. I cannot just swing into festive forgetfulness of the world's poor and those who drown in sorrows at Christmas. Nor can I not think hard about some of the things I read. I could, of course, not write about them here. But I think I will. Because, on the whole, I like the debate, the thinking, the wrestling.

But - I hope - that this post stands as a brief testimonial that I (yes, I, dour and repressed old me) like to have fun, intend to have fun and will enjoy having fun - whenever I can.

Cheers (without a humbug in sight).

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Addicts welcome (yes, that means you, too...)

Someone took issue with a testimony posted on the Jesus Army website the other day. It was the story of a guy who'd got free from addictions through his faith in Jesus. (Check it out.) They wrote: 'So what ur saying is christians don't have addictions?? Now I've heard it all.'

Actually that wasn't what the article was saying. But nevertheless, there can be a danger that Christians, keen to broadcast the amazing change Christ brings, can over egg the cake and present a picture rosier than the reality. It's misleading.

Christians do suffer from disorders, disease - and addiction.

In fact, I reckon most people suffer from addiction of one kind or another. Some are big and life-wrecking (harmful habits, substance abuse, whatever). Others are more subtle but destructive nonetheless (minor obsessions, skewed thinking...) Christians are no exception to that at all.

But they have found hope of something better in Jesus who breaks the power of all addiction (or, to use the older word, all sin). So perhaps the only difference is they acknowledge their need and ask for help.

As a Christian - I do truly believe Jesus answers that prayer, bit by bit, over a lifetime - and after.