Thursday, November 17, 2011

True lies

I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings after many years.

It’s prequel, The Silmarillion, is a great favourite of mine, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read outside of Scripture and Shakespeare. And I’m reading The Hobbit to my 8- and 6-year-olds – so I thought it was time to revisit LOTR.

Tolkein expressed distaste for allegory, and the way that genre seeks to hound the reader into truth. He preferred the truths that come sideways through myth. Nevertheless, last night I read something which opened up a truth I’ll jot here, for those interested. (If mythic/fantasy literature doesn’t do it for you, feel free to stop here. See you next post if I haven’t put you off for good.)

So: The Lord of the Rings. I’ve arrived at that part in the story in which we meet Denathor, steward of Gondor. For those not familiar with Tolkein’s epic, Denathor has long ruled over that embattled country and its besieged capital, Minas Tirith. He rules in the absence of a king, just barely holding off the might and horror of neighbouring Mordor, the land of shadow.

Denathor is a man in despair – a despair that, a few chapters after we meet him, descends into madness. Convinced that all is lost and hope is gone, he tries to burn himself alive, together with his wounded son and heir.

The source of his despair, it transpires has come from having seen into a palantír (non-Tolkein readers, think crystal ball; Tolkein readers, forgive the comparison) in which he has wrestled with the will of the evil Lord of the Rings, Sauron. Through what he has permitted Denathor to see in the palantír, Sauron has deceived the steward into the crushing hopelessness which defeats him.

But it is what Sauron permits Denathor to see that struck me: he lets him see the truth.

Nothing that Denathor sees (or is permitted to see) in the palantír is untrue. He sees enemy armies amassing in great might and power, he sees the sparseness of his own and his allies’ strength. They cannot win. All hope is lost.

Yet Denethor is deceived by the truth. (In the end, it is two highly improbable heroes, two little half-size hobbits, that will bring triumph against Sauron’s might. But these Denathor did not see – nor did Sauron.)

When Satan, ‘the father of lies’, wishes to deceive, to wear out the saints, to sow discouragement and despair, he does not always lie outright. His most compelling lies can be those that are true. Lies that show truth – but not the whole truth.

“You’re not growing.” “That didn’t work.” “And you – you’re a sinner.” “Masses of people in the UK couldn’t care less about God.” “Sometimes, you couldn’t care less either.” “No-one’s listening.” “You make so little difference.”

And then, the whispered suggestion comes, so quiet, it seems to come from your own thought: “Why not just give up?”

But it’s a deceit. God delights to perform his greatest acts through the little people. He works in the small, the hidden, the ordinary, the overlooked. Watch out for mangers – they’ve been know to hold Messiahs. Watch out for executed criminals – they’ve been known to save the world. Watch out for that ragtag, disregarded, often odd, usually confused, rather-behind-the-times bunch called the Christian Church: they’re the firstfruits of God’s glorious new creation.

Let me learn the lesson of Denathor. I want to avoid listening to lies – especially when they’re true.

The kingdom is coming. Come, O Lord!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Mark and Helen

We're grieving the deaths of two friends we hadn't seen for a while, Mark and Helen. We first met them through the Coventry Jesus Centre (see yesterday's post and others), but they became part of our family for a little while, often visiting us at White Stone House, our community home. They even spent a few days away in Kent with us all last February.

Mark was an active, intelligent man, always stimulating to talk to. His devotion to Helen was obvious. Helen was quiet and sweet, with a wonderful impish sense of humour that could take us by surprise at times.

We lost touch in the early summer. They had been beset with difficulties, and found it hard to come all the way to Coventry (they lived in the next town). Also, I got the impression that Mark found the way his heart was being opened up by the love of a big family rather scary: when hurts run deep, it's not easy to open up.

We remained on very warm terms, I exchanged friendly emails with Mark from time to time, and they popped into Coventry Jesus Centre sometimes, too.

So imagine our shock and grief when we heard, the other day, from Mark's mother, that Mark and Helen had been found dead in their house.

In all the pain, in the fond memories now tinted with sorrow, in the regret, the inevitable stabs of guilt ('could we have done something more?'), in the anger ('why were they failed by the system?') and the helplessness, I cling to this: they tasted love - for each other, certainly, and also, for a time, among us; they knew Jesus; they received his love; they're in heaven.

Another friend of mine wrote a poem just recently after the death of his mother. But as I read it, I was thinking of Mark and Helen.

It was a long time
But she could see now.
All those tears that had poured from her eyes
And those inside
Blurring her vision and drowning her heart
Were all wiped away
She could see.

She came from a long line of broken hearts
Just an ordinary woman longing for righteousness
But she shone brighter than any celestial body
When she landed here upon this New Earth.
She used to be my mother,
But she is taken up with bigger things now.

It’s been a long time,
Something like and not like a thousand years
All spent gazing at this daisy
But as she will tell you
Its fascination is endless
(Like everything else here)
And there’s no rush,
For if time is here at all
It is a river without end
If not, then time has poured into a shoreless ocean
Either way there is no rush.

Mark and Helen - you will be sorely missed. Until we meet again, rest well - and enjoy those daisies.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Naked ladies and raised eyebrows

So, there's this Christian chap touring 66 cities around the UK, speaking on all 66 books of the Bible as he goes (one in each). While he was in Coventry, he dropped by our Jesus Centre and interviewed the manager, Piers.

He was very enthusiastic and affirming about what we seek to do and to be. So encouraging, I thought I'd share his blog post (which includes the interview vid) here. Enjoy.

Eye eyeA funny postscript: the blog post is entitled '"Bombs and naked ladies" - a good way to pick up attention from Googlers, even if their not the kind of Googlers likely to be interested in a preaching tour. As I was looking at it earlier an old friend dropped by. As we were chatting, I noticed him raise his eyebrows as he glanced at my PC monitor. Only after I left did I realise he may not have realised the blog was about two icons of Coventry's past (the blitz and Lady Godiva) rather than anything unsavoury.

I think he may be praying for me right now. Hey ho. I can always use people praying for me.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Naturally speaking

I’ve been thinking about natural strengths recently, partly prompted by writing a study on two pretty impressively able characters, one from the Old Testament – Elisha – and one from the New – Paul. On the one hand, God clearly chooses, calls, and uses people of capacity and character to further his purposes. On the other, he chooses what is “foolish in the world to shame the wise and what is weak in the world to shame the strong”. And he calls us to “die to” much that may be naturally good, for the sake of something spiritually better. (Or so Hinds Feet on High Places says, so it must be true, eh?)

So I posed the question on Twitter: “What is the right biblical attitude to natural talent? Die to it? Use it? Both? Half & half? Or what? Answers on a posttweet please.”

Most of the answers were basically positive towards natural strengths and talents, with the caveat sometimes added that we should “give glory to God” for them (Not always quite sure what this means in practice beyond putting pious expressions like “Praise the Lord” on our lips, which I can never quite get into despite being a passionate Christian. Post for another day?)

Anyway – Elisha and Paul. Some thoughts taken from the studies I wrote:

Elisha has many qualities: his determination (ploughing parched ground with twelve yoke of oxen); his full-blooded commitment (burning the tools of his old occupation when called to follow Elijah); his loyalty and resolve to follow his mentor closely once he sensed the time for Elijah’s departure was near, his heart-devotion glimpsed in his quiet grief at the thought of this departure. His boldness and faith are evident in his request for a "double portion" of Elijah's spirit.

Israel had many kings, but they were rarely her real leaders. True leaders were anointed not just with oil, but with the Spirit. In the era of 2Kings, the monarchy was so unspiritual that true godly authority in Israel had reverted to prophets. The issue of Elijah’s successor was vital because he would represent God’s authority in Israel. The Bible narrative hints at Elijah’s likeness to Israel’s founding prophet: his parting the water by striking it with his cloak is reminiscent of Moses’ parting the Red Sea with his staff. When Elisha is able to do this, too, he is shown to be the true successor of Elijah, just as Joshua was successor to Moses. Elisha now carries God’s authority.

Reading and pondering all this, I find myself asking: which of Elisha’s qualities can I aim to grow in? But also – how can we, in our church, ensure those with anointing (rather than just natural ability or a “leadership” label) carry true authority among us?

In Paul’s world there were three key groups: Jews, Greeks and Romans. Paul was the ideal man to represent the gospel across his world: a pure-bred Jew who studied under a leading rabbi; a Greek-speaker with good knowledge of philosophy; a Roman citizen by birth. He is at pains to stress his Jewish pedigree to an audience of zealous Jews; he makes use of his Roman citizenship on more than one occasion; in Athens and Corinth, he quotes Greek poetry and philosophy.

Sometimes these advantages led to gospel opportunities: impressed with Paul’s excellent Greek, a tribune allows him to speak to the Jews, whom Paul addresses in Hebrew. Sometimes they led to Paul escaping imprisonment or punishment, as in Jerusalem and previously in Philippi. And sometimes they did him no good at all: the Jewish crowd still turn on him in Jerusalem; the Athenians dismiss him as a "babbler"; tradition says Paul was beheaded in Rome!

Paul saw his natural advantages as rubbish compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ” and having God’s power working in him. But he certainly wasn’t against using natural strengths when the situation called for them!

We’ve landed slap bang in the middle of another paradox, I feel. I must ask myself: what are my natural strengths? Am I able to “consider them as rubbish”? Conversely, can I freely offer them to God to use them for his plans and purpses, for the gospel?