Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Wrath of God: God is not Angry he's MADD

I choose what I call a spiritual health book each year. A book on spiritual disciplines and formation that I read and re read and try and to put into practise in my life.  This year I have been reading James Bryan Smith's book 'The Good and Beautiful God' and have found it a very useful.

One example of that is the insight that Smith gives to the idea of God's wrath. God is concerned and against sin and invites us to change the way we live, not as a condition of his love but rather as an outworking of his love. God’s so serious about sin that he was willing to send his son to die on the cross to deal with it and its effect on us. But its not because he is angry with us rather its like he is MADD.

This isn't a spelling mistake God is not mad as in crazy or mad as in uncontrollable anger or even mad spelt M.A.D that stood for, Mutual Assured Destruction, like in the spectre of atomic weapons in cold war days but... M.A.D.D. as in Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It is an organisation started by the mothers of teenagers who had been killed in drink driving tragedies. They knew the pain and grief and the damage that drinking and driving can cause and so started education and legislative campaigns to lessen those effects. God, says James Bryan Smith is M.A.D.D. about sin.

“God cares deeply about sin because it destroys his precious children and God longs for holiness in us because it is the way to wholeness.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hopelessness or hope, violence and revenge or love your enemy, great Aussie Crime movie and Christian propaganda: The story of two movies Animal Kingdom (2010), The End of the Spear (2005).

This week I had the chance to see two movies, one on a Tuesday afternoon in response to a TV ad and the other on a Thursday evening after I’d been drawn to the DVD in a bargain bin. The both dealt with tragedies in people’s (young men’s) lives, circles of violence and revenge, one asked some questions of me and the other provided some scope of answer. One was a crime story written for film and the other was a film based on a true story.

Animal Kingdom (2010) told the story of “J” a seventeen year old boy youth who comes from a major crime family in Australia. He is rather detached from the world, his mother has tried to shield him from the destructive influences of her family but after she dies from a drug overdose (before “J”’s eyes) he has no where left to god so finds himself involved with a family hunted by a corrupt police force and caught in a cycle of crime, violence, drugs and mental illness. The voice over at the start of the movie says “Criminals are all afraid, they all fear, they all come a cropper”. That sets the scene for the whole movie. If one was to categorise this movie you’d call it a gangster movie, and as such the protagonist can never be redeemed because while many such movies glamorise crime (Animal Kingdom does not) they act as cautionary tales.

The end of the spear (2005) is a film about the life of two men from totally different worlds and how tragedy touches both their lives and because of the gospel proclaimed and lived out it brings healing and wholeness for them their families and a whole people group. Mincyani is a Waodani tribesman who as a child sees his father and younger brother killed by a rival tribe. He grows up in a society that is based on revenge and a rule of the spear. Steve Saint is the son of a missionary who with four others tries to make contact with the Waodani tribe only to be killed by Mincyani and his fellows. The brave women of the missionary family’s choose to go and live with the Waodani and bring hope and healing. Through their ministry (and a s a Christian I’d want to acknowledge the Holy Spirit) the Waodani society changes and they learn to love their enemies. The film ends (spoiler) with reconciliation between Mincyani and a grown up Steve. The film starts by wanting to give assurance of hope, that people can change and that there is a cure for the human condition. AS a movie it fits into a family epic and historical drama, sadly I’m sure many would write it off as Christian propaganda (it is produced by an in dependant film company) , however the story is so compelling and hope filled that it can’t simply be written off as that.

I’m glad I saw Animal Kingdom (2010) because it invites one to ask is there any hope: Are their people in our society who are trapped in such cycles and what is the way out? Being an Australian film with the typical Aussie realism for me a s a kiwi makes it hard to shake off as simply another emotive piece of cellulose. In the film “J” is offered a way out by detective Leckie (played by Guy Pearce), a non corrupt police officer. However his offer is only protective custody and no real promise of a new life. “J” girlfriend and her family could be another life line thrown to him but it is not enough. “J” gets pulled back into violence and revenge and in the end makes takjes the only option he feels is left to him.

It made me leave the cinema asking questions like where was the gospel, where was hope, where was the possibility of new life, even “J”s grandmother Granny ‘Smurf” who welcomes “J” in ends up showing her true colours by trying to arrange his death. A church does appear once in the movie for the funeral of one of “J’s uncles, who had been a ray of hope in J’s life, then it simply a empty cold concrete building which ‘J’s other uncles soon vacate to plot revenge.

I am so glad I saw 'The end of the spear' soon after 'Animal kingdom'. In ‘end of the spear’ there is hope, there is gospel, and it’s almost as if it answers the question about the possibility of the gospel to bring change. But that change comes from a commitment and sacrifice by people equally touched by tragedy to offer themselves to live amongst the violence and live an alternative reality. It’s not a quick fix, a mission foray into the jungle (real not urban) then home feeling good. Its a willingness to invest and risk life, to see change, to forgive and live that forgiveness. In a recent lecture Tim keel talked of a friend of his who lives and brings change to at rick young people in the midst of urban decay. The response of his friend he said was ‘Life Long one on one Love’. This is the sort of thing that is displayed in ‘the end of the spear’ and adsent in ‘Animal Kingdom’.

Animal Kingdom finishes with a devastated family, four out of five children are dead, “j’s” girlfriend adds to the carnage. While ‘The End of The Spear’ finishes with grandfathers and gain in the midst of such loss. For the first time ever the Waodoni tribe men grow old enough to see their children grow up and to see their children’s children.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Centurion (2010) a reflection: Romans, Picts a missing legion and... The church as an alternative community of healing, hospitality and love

I went and saw the film Centurion (2010) a couple of weeks ago and it’s taken me a while to think through what I thought about it. It’s an English movie set in the year 117 A.D. on the northern border of the Roman Empire and deals with the 2000 year old mystery surrounding the fate of the ninth legion.

It was advertised as not being able to be pigeon holed as any one genre of movie. It wasn’t a sandal and sword epic, an adventure movie, a chase movie. Hey it does revolve round a chase for most of the movie), I did wonder if it was the English equivalent of a western, with Rome being the invading civilisation trying to domesticate the new lands and the Picts as the Indians, indigenous peoples defending their lands and culture. It is a gripping movie with a well written script and we really liked it (mind you it was the first time we'd managed to go out on a date without the kids for a while which helped).

I went and saw it with my wife Kris and both of us couldn’t help but ask ourselves “Is this about Ancient Briton on modern day Afghanistan?” The might of the superpower of the day finds itself challenged and broken by a fierce tribal grouping (in the case of the movie the Picts) who know and can use their knowledge of the land to their advantage. Even the opening voice over was ambiguous. Centurion Quinton Dias says” that the cold in this place eats into ones soul” and that “the war they are in is a war without honour, a war where the enemy will not face them in open battle but chooses to raid and disappear back into the dark, it is a war without end.”

Quinton Dias identifies himself as a loyal soldier of Rome in his opening soliloquy but as the movie goes on we find his loyalties challenged and changing. After a defeat at the hands of the Pict forces and forced to survive way behind the enemy lines he finds himself seeing his main loyalty is to the men his defeated and imprisoned general asks him to get home. They themselves are a group which show the extent of empire as they are a group who come from Africa, Greece, from the edges of India, Sicily and a Sergeant who simply identifies himself as from the Army, “the army found me in the streets and showed me a better way to live.” But (without giving the plot away this brotherhood is betrayed. Likewise as the centurion alone makes it back to the safety of Hadrian’s wall and Roman society finds himself unwanted and betrayed for political expedience. In the end as a fugitive from Rome he opts to go and live in an alternative community, a place he has found of healing, hospitality and love. A place that is ostracised by both the empire and tribal opposition: A place of new possibilities.

I did wonder if there wasn’t something here for the church in the west as well as a timely reminder of history for the powers in this world. (The splash you just heard was me going off the deep end). The church has been identified with western civilization and its powers know it finds itself once again on the edges. It also does not seem to fit the tribal opposition to empire, a grouping which equally embraces violence and craves power. Perhaps the call for us is to step out and to once again be an alternative community, a place of healing, hospitality and even love in the face of both empire and opposition: A dangerous place to be but one of definite possibility for people from both, all sides to find a new way to live.

The fact that the movie is set in the same area that would later be where Celtic Christianity grew and provided those places of learning, healing and hospitality strengthens those thoughts for me.
I wonder if there isn’t a sense where the church in the west tries to hold onto its central position in the places of power, and in doing so has lost its calling in Christ to be an outpost of a new way: a third way to live. I don’t thing that’s a radical separation and stepping out of the world, it’s interesting how many of today’s cities and towns in Scotland and England grew up around the cells of Celtic monks who had gone off into the wilderness to find a place to encounter God. The question is how in the midst of all that goes on around us we establish these alternative places, these alternative communities?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Psalm 133 God blesses Unity

Psalm 133

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 How good and pleasant it is

when God's people live together in unity!

2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,

running down on the beard,

running down on Aaron's beard,

down on the collar of his robe.

3 It is as if the dew of Hermon

were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the LORD bestows his blessing,

even life forevermore.

Psalm 133 is a psalm of ascension, a song of going up, used as pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem: A song from the road a song for the journey. It’s one of a series of Psalms of ascension starting at Psalm 120 and finishing at Psalm 134.

You get the idea of the pilgrim starting their journey from some far off place and travelling to Jerusalem, the temple being their focus and destination a symbol of God’s presence. They may have left their home village or distant city by themselves or in a small group and they come towards the city and they join a stream of humanity, fellow Israelites and Jews and God fearers from round the country, round the world coming together to worship.

Even the urban dwellers in Jerusalem leave their homes, travel the shorter distance down the small streets and out into the crowded pilgrim ways. In the psalms of ascent they remember God’s goodness, his help in distress, his great works in creation and in caring for Israel in the past, they confess their sins. This Psalm, the last one before they arrive at their destination and receive the blessing that appears in psalm 134, changes their perspective. The focus had been on the place: The temple. That was where God’s blessing was to be found. But they look around them and they realise it’s not the place it’s the people, here it is God’s people that had been the centre of God’s covenant relationship gathered together and here, in this unity being this people, this togetherness that is where God will pour out his blessing. God desires and blesses unity amongst his people.

The psalm is attributed to David; it has an older setting an older context that it has been drawn from. It would be great if we had a date at the top of it to tell us the very occasion David would have penned it for, we don’t. But knowing it comes from David helps us to get into the metaphors that are used.

In many modern translations it says ‘ It’s good when God’s people get together and live in harmony’ the image behind that is that it is good when ‘brothers live together in harmony’ it comes from the image of an extended family. In Israel’s culture sons would stay at home with their father and as they grew and got married their wives and later family would come and join the clan. If you read through genesis you can see this in the life of Abraham and more so with Israel and his sons. When you read the story of David’s anointing as King by Samuel the prophet, you also get the picture of all the sons living together. David’s experience of this must have been a good one unlike Joseph’s in genesis where his brothers didn’t like his dreams and his father’s favouritism so they plotted to kill him and eventually sold him off to slavery in Egypt. But from what we know David had a good experience of it. In the end even Joseph felt this bound so tightly that he wanted to be reconciled with his brothers and bless them. So when David is king and finally Israel is bought together as one people no longer as different factions and tribes he can apply this image of brothers living together in harmony to the whole of the nation, after all they are the descendants of Israel’s sons.

From our own nation we might look back and say isn’t in good when brothers work well together; look at the Meads and the Clarks in that great all black era of the 1960’s see what can happen when brothers work well together, look at the Wheaton’s and the Brookes, and the coopers, we even won the world cup when they played together.

And wow look at the Evers- Swindell’s when those sisters work so well together when they get in that skip together, see how they are blessed. What would happen if we were unified and together like that? Isn’t it great when this people of comes together in unity?

This family metaphor is applied to the whole of Israel down through the temple worship even into the Diaspora when Jews were spread all over the known world, it’s a metaphor that we the church, a truly global community use as well we are brothers and sister in Christ, we are this new people bought and brought together in Jesus life and death and resurrection. Where it says in the reading we had this morning from Ephesians that in Jesus we have been made into one people over the great social barriers of the world.

Then David goes on to express what it is like using vivid images and metaphors of God’s blessing.

It is like the precious oil poured on the head running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard down on the collar of his robe.

Perhaps in our post industrial age we don’t quite see the image of having oil poured over us as being a pleasant one. We may think of, leaks in deep sea oil wells,oil spills and their devastating effects. We may think of what comes out of our sump when we change the oil. Those who do the washing probably think whose going to get those oil stains out of the clothes. With the price of petrol and oil based products we may again have a fuller understanding of precious oil.

Maybe we can catch a glimpse of what is envisaged here in the growth of the boutique olive oil industry around New Zealand and the world, creating scented and herb flavoured oils. As the anointing oil would have been one with fragrances like frankincense in it. We are also only used to people having a small amount of oil used in anointing: A figure dipped in and the sign of the cross made on peoples forehead. But the image here is of abundance.

Aaron of course was the first high priest of Israel and the picture is of him being anointed with oil not in a stingy way but lavishly having this expensive liquid poured out all over him. This is a picture of a greater anointing as well, the anointing of the spirit. And the picture is one of that anointing coming down on all people as they gathered together to worship. They all encountered God’s blessing. One of the catch cries of the reformation is ‘a priesthood of all believers’ all of us in Christ are priests: set aside and anointed to minister and to serve God. All of us together have the blessing of standing before God. He pours out his life giving spirit, that fragrant oil, all over all of us. That is the blessing as we gather together to God. Jesus even showed this blessing being poured out whenever people came together in his name ‘for even if two or three are together in my name I am in their midst’. Not the place the people. The precious Oil is poured out in abundance, God is not stingy he is generous and generously gives his spirit and presence.

“It’s as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

Mt Hermon is the highest peak in Israel it stands over 9,000 feet high to the north of the Sea of Galilee. It stands on the border between modern day Israel, Syria and Lebanon. It commands the whole of the valley below and was bitterly fought over in the 1973 yom kipper war. It is the place in that part of the Middle East that can be guaranteed to have snow on it all year round. The whole of the Jordan river that feeds into the Sea of Galilee and then flows on down the rift valley down past Jerusalem and on into the dead sea has its headwaters in the snow of Hermon. That life giving water course comes from the dew and the snow on Mt Hermon. So for David he sees that our unity our togetherness causes God’s blessing to flow in a way that brings life to the whole of the nation of Israel. It’s as if the pilgrim being together being in unity, is a source of a blessing from God. Just like that river has provided water for the land from the beginning so will unity bring God’s blessing even to eternal life.

Life giving water of course is a metaphor in the scriptures of Jesus. He is the one who can give life giving water. We have that life in us together because Christ dwells in our midst. That is why it’s a blessing of life even life everlasting because of the presence of the infinite amidst us finite beings.

I wonder if the one of the keys to unity isn’t realising that we are all in actual fact pilgrims together. We haven’t made it yet. We haven’t settled down and staked out our territory. We haven’t made it yet. We are all along way off but invited by god to come to him, Weary and heavy laden from the journey. We haven’t made it yet. We are simply on the journey all invited by Jesus to come follow me. We all have stuff to carry and we all have stuff to share, we have a lot to learn and from who we are and where we’ve come we all have treasures to contribute. We all have sources of sustenance and rest to contribute.

Being a pilgrim can change our posture towards each other. Malcolm X was a black activist in America in the 1960’s whose advocating of an armed struggle caused him to get off side or be portrayed as anti white in the media. Malcolm X was a Muslim. One of the pivotal events in his life, as you would expect from a Muslim, was to go on the Hajj a pilgrimage to Mecca. He says that when he got there he realised as he walked with over a million other people from around the world round the sacred sites and did the religious rituals, that that here he was as a brother to people of all different skin types and backgrounds and that they were all brothers (sorry no women on the Haj) and he realised that we are all god’s children and came back with a more conciliatory attitude. He still fought against injustice, still championed civil rights but of all people he had a deeper understanding of brotherhood and unity. The sad thing is that he did not see that unity expressed in the church.

There is a call for unity in this psalm, of being God’s people together. A call echoed by the writer of the book of Hebrew’s. Who says that we have all been invited into the presence of God, not in the temple in Jerusalem, not in a place, but in the person of Jesus Christ: The one who shed his blood for us. Again no trickledown economics here mate! but a wonderful and all encompassing offer of grace, so costly yet freely given. And because we have been given that offer been bought into that relationship with God then we ought to be unified to love one another and spur one another on in the faith. We should meet together for worship, give hospitality to each other and encourage each other. As we journey together gather together as we grow together as we become one God is able to pour out his blessing.

It’s a hope we as the church as God’s people can give to a world desperate for peace. We can be a outpost in the world of a new way to be human together. Óscar Rafael de Jesús Arias Sánchez, who was president in Costa Rico won the Nobel peace prize in 1987 for bringing an end to several civil wars in countries in central America in his Nobel lecture he said

“Peace is not a matter of prizes or trophies. It is not the product of a victory or command. It has no finishing line, no final deadline, no fixed definition of achievement. Peace is a never-ending process, the work of many decisions by many people in many countries.

It is an attitude, a way of life, a way of solving problems and resolving conflicts. It cannot be forced on the smallest nation or enforced by the largest. It cannot ignore our differences or overlook our common interests. It requires us to work and live together.”

Is’nt it great when God’s people dwell together in Unity” It’s hope we can give to the world in Christ

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Little Conversation With Big Significance

I remember having a conversation one day with the what English humorist and writer of deep Christian insights Adrian Plass calls the small voice at the back of his mind that he equates with God speaking.

I was feeling down and aware of my own shortcomings and faults, and heard that voice trying to encourage me saying “Howard I love You.”

“But God” I replied “ I don’t deserve your love”

“But” said the voice “ It’s about grace.”

“Yeah but God I don’t even deserve your grace” I threw back.

“Isn’t that the point” the voice replied with a laugh “isn’t that what grace is all about? It’s not earned its freely given.”

I laughed “point taken” I said.
“I Love you Howard” the voice replied.

“Thank you God” I said and smiled.

You are loved, loved lavishly and unconditionally, by a good and gracious God.

Hearing God's Voice In The Midst Of Life's Storms (reflections on Psalm 29)

Psalm 29

A psalm of David.

1 Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,

ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;

worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.

3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.

4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;

the voice of the LORD is majestic.

5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;

the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

Sirion like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the LORD strikes

with flashes of lightning.

8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert;

the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks

and strips the forests bare.

And in his temple all cry, "Glory!"

10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;

the LORD is enthroned as King forever.

11 The LORD gives strength to his people;

the LORD blesses his people with peace

Some storms are memorable. Like the one in which the Inter Island ferry ‘The Wahine’ sunk after striking Barrett’s reef in the mouth of Wellington Harbour. Which has been bought to our attention again recently as we’ve been marking 50 years of TV in New Zealand. It was for an older generation the first major New Zealand event they remember being reported on the tube.

Cyclone Bola struck new Zealand’s east Coast the year Kris and I were first married and we were in Tauranga. I was working at a hot house complex in Te Puke and as the wind began to rise and the clouds began to build on the horizon I was a five or six meters off the ground standing on a thin metal beam holding a corner of the plastic roof that needed to be fixed before the storm struck. We were also on the first plane out of Tauranga after the cyclone and remember that we went up and down in the turbulence as much as we travelled along as we went over the hills to Rotorua. I also remember a day or two later going out to surf in six to eight foot waves on the “sheltered side” of Leisure Island at the Mount Maunganui beach. Maybe as you read Psalm 29 you too had memories of the storms you have experienced in your life, either real weather storms or times when circumstances and events have felt storm like.

You see Psalm 29 is a nature psalm. It uses imagery from creation to invite its reader to worship the creator. In this instant the Psalmist uses the experience of a powerful storm to invite us to praise God for his power and Glory.

The storm front sweeps along the Mediterranean Sea, There is lightning and thunder and wind and rain, it rages over the cedar clad hills of Lebanon, Trees are uprooted, or struck by lightning, across the wilderness and desert to the north of Jerusalem, you could imagine dust and sand being added to the dark towering clouds, Finally it descends on the city of Jerusalem itself... In response to that God’s people, safe in his temple, can do nothing else but cry Glory to God. But it does not leave us in the midst of the storm there is the wonderful assurance that like a still morning after a stormy night that this powerful God of ours gives both strength and peace to his people.

It’s a polemic, a psalm written in response to the worldview of Israel’s neighbours who worshipped nature gods, creation as divine, rather than worshipping the creator. The Psalm starts by calling ‘heavenly beings’ to worship Israel’s God YHWH. In the Ancient Near East the sun and moon and stars even storms themselves were worshipped as gods. The Psalmist Calls these mere objects to acknowledge the almighty power of God their creator. The cedars of Lebanon were seen as being the material that these deities made their dwellings from ,but the psalmist says that the real God, the one true God, when he speaks like thunder and lightning well these mighty trees as nothing more than match sticks. The psalm calls us all to acknowledge that God is enthroned and sovereign over all his creation even the worst winter storm.

It’s a polemic that is still relevant for us today as we have by scientific reason simply written off weather, and other things as mere physical objects and naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s a polemic not to lose the wow factor. The awe and praise for the One whom scripture tells us made it all. That tells us nature reflects the very one who made it. In an age when we are starting to realise that human beings just may have changed things enough to alter the weather it is important to again have a sense of awe and respect for the earth and the one who made it and us.

Today from this Psalm I want to draw three things that I believe are very relevant for us as we face life’s storms, both the weather ones and storms as a metaphor for the circumstances and issues that can buffet and rock us.

The first is I wonder if we haven’t domesticated God, That we emphasis the immanence of God his closeness and love, Jesus as friend or buddy to the extent that we lose something of the power and majesty and awesomeness of God. Maybe that is in response to one of the misconceptions that JB Phillips in his book ‘Your God is Too Small’, says we can have of God. He says that people see God as a cosmic policeman, a vengeful God waiting for us to muck up so he can turn us all into instant sinner burgers. We see lightning bolts as signs of God’s displeasure not his grandeur. So in response our God might have got too thin, as JB Phillips says, we can turn God into a cosmic credit card, someone we look to fulfil not only our needs but our wants as well. Our Jesus becomes plastic, simply there at our beck and call when needed to bail us out.

This Psalm invites us again to see God as not only the God who can calm the storms of life but who is God even in the midst of the storms of life. Who is in control and sovereign, who is enthroned even when it seems no one is in control, when its totally out of control. God who is still in control and working out his purposes in times like today which Author Leonard Sweet says we are living through such drastic changes that it’s like being in a cultural tsunami.We have a God who is able to speak in and through such times.

Aslam is the Christ figure in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, in ‘the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’. The children wonder if they will be scared when they meet Aslam who is a lion and Mr Beaver, a talking animal replies “Aslam is not a tame Lion”. He’s good but he’s not tame. This Psalm invites us to remember this as well. God is not tame, but he is good.

The second thing from this Psalm is that God is able to speak to us through the Storms. Over and over again in this psalm there is the repetition of the phrase the voice of the Lord. It’s in the thunder over the sea, over the hills and the wilderness and the city. It’s in the thunder and the psalmist says God speaks and makes the lightning flash. It’s often in life’s storms that God speaks to us.

Jonah; ‘The Great storm”

In the book of Jonah, God uses the great storm and the great fish to turn the prophet round, from going his own way to doing what God has called him to do.

Skate board legend Christian Hosoi, talks of becoming the US amateur champion at twelve, a professional skateboarder with his own company earning hundreds of thousands a year by the time he was twenty, and in jail at thirty for smuggling drugs into Hawaii. He says it was only as his life was in the midst of the storm of prison that he heard God’s voice and came to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It was ironically in prison he found freedom. God’s voice wasn’t audible in the fame, the popularity and all its trappings only in the storm. At 42 Christian is now a pastor as well as a skater and tours the world with Evangelist Luis Palau.

In Acts 27-28 we see how God used the storm to take another prisoner Paul on an exciting mission to the Island of Malta, where not only were all onboard the ship kept safe through the storm, but many people on Malta became followers of Jesus Christ. Maybe the storms in our lives and society are the times when we can be shaken out of our comfort zones and moved to new opportunities. The writer Paula Ripple in her book Growing Strong in Broken places says.

"Tension is God’s gift to us, a gift that sometimes will not permit us to escape its presence. I believe that our creative energies are activated by just that kind of upsetting tension. It is in responding to this gnawing discomfort that we have the possibility of giving shape to dreams that are at once faithful to who we are and who we can become."

Can I just add that great amounts of pressure are the only difference between coal and diamonds.

Elijah encountered God in the eye of a storm at Mt Horeb. Even after his great victory against the prophets of Baal at Mt Camel, he was despondent and felt isolated and abandoned, while he saw the glory of the Lord in the lighting and thunder the earth quake and the fire, he needed to know the imminence of God who in the stillness where God spoke to him in a small still voice. Giving him assurance of God’s presence and that he was not alone. I don’t know about you but often in the midst of the turmoil and spinning of life when it feels like you’ve out at an ocean surf beach and been picked up by a wave and spun round and round over and over, there is a gap a lull in which God whispers that he hasn’t abandoned us but is with and for us. It gives the chance to grab our breath and hold on as the next set comes through.

The disciples of course found themselves in the same place as the worshippers in the temple as they encountered Jesus in the midst of a storm and he spoke to the wind and the waves and they were stilled. We can also be amazed as God speaks his salvation and peace into our storms.

Amidst the storm of conflict between roman occupier and Jewish politics, a man finds himself sacrificed to political expediency. In the storm of being nailed to the cross, being buffeted by the worst of man’s inhumanity and violence, in Jesus god speaks peace, forgiveness and new life. He speaks his salvation and bring new creation into the world.

The third and final thing from this psalm is the peace and strength that we can receive from knowing that God is enthroned above the flood waters. Storm fronts can sweep in over our horizons, they can linger. We lived in Rotorua for many years. Which is in a basin surrounded by hills and sometimes it would start raining and the clouds would blanket the hills for days on end and you’d never see the sky or the sun and it could get you down. It was like living in angry Tupperware container. Then the sun would break through.

One of New Zealand’s most respected biblical scholars Professor EM Blaiklock puts it like this

‘The tempests of the heart, the tumults of the world, roll and pass. God remains. It is well, under the dark nimbus, to remember that above is tranquil blue.’

And I want to finis with the example of Hymn Writer Horatio Spafford who through the toughest of life storms learned to trust and find peace, hope and even Joy in knowing Jesus Christ.

In 1871, tragedy struck Chicago as fire ravaged the city. When it was all over, 300 people were dead and 100,000 were homeless. Horatio Spafford was one of those who tried to help the people of the city get back on their feet. A lawyer who had invested much of his money into downtown Chicago real estate, he'd lost a great deal to the fire. And his one son (he had four daughters) had died about the same time of scarlet fever. Still, for two years Spafford--who was a friend of evangelist Dwight Moody--assisted the homeless, impoverished, and grief-stricken ruined by the fire. After two years of such work, Spafford and his family decided to take a vacation. They were to go to England to join Moody and Ira Sankey on one of their evangelistic crusades, then travel in Europe.

Horatio Spafford was delayed by some business, but sent his family on ahead. Their ship never made it. Off Newfoundland, it collided with an English sailing ship, and sank. Though Horatio's wife, Anna, was able to cling to a piece of floating wreckage, their four daughters were killed.

Horatio received a horrible telegram from his wife, only two words long: "saved alone." Spafford boarded the next available ship to be with his grieving wife. As they passed over the place where his daughters had drowned he went down into his cabin and penned these words

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll;

whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Spafford life was marked with grief and loss, he would lose a further child to scarlet fever, and he struggled with sorrow and depression. Spafford and his wife Anne eventually turned their grief into mercy ministry and founded a community in Jerusalem to care for the poor and displaced at the start of the first world war. His words which declare a trust in the sovereignty of God even in the face of over whelming loss and the worst that storms can bring have become one of the most loved hymns in the English language and call us to find our peace and comfort not in situations but in the God we come to know through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Waiting for the Kick Ass to kick in... A kick ass film review and hopefully not too cheesy theological reflection

I watched a DVD of ‘Kick-Ass’ (2010) over the weekend. ‘Kick-Ass’ is the Michael Vaughn directed movie version of the Mark Millar comic book. It tells the story of an anonymous everyday high school student, Dave Lizewski, who one day decides that he no longer wants to be a victim of crime or a casual bystander but will don a mask and costume and become a super hero crime fighter even though he does not have super powers.

It’s an interesting movie but like some other movies I’ve been watching recently it’s a hard watch; the violence level and the almost sciocopathic disregard for human life meant (in my humble opinion) that it earned its New Zealand rating of R18. The saturated colours, quick editing and framing that give it a comic book aesthetic did little for me in removing the violence from reality enough to be consumed as entertainment. Crazy costumes, stereotypical villains and the definite improbability of the plot did not remove the impact of brutal stabbings, gun shots, beatings and a torture scene.

The film did leave me thinking about two things however. The myth perpetrated by Hollywood and such mediums as super hero comic books that the only way to overcome violence is through violence. ‘Lizewski’ becomes Kick Ass to defend the weak but to do that resorts to using two clubs or batons and finally graduates to a rocket pack armed with duel Gatling guns. There is heroism as he does not have any super powers and is rather a scrawny guy. He gets more than he gives ( and as a result of his first outing as Kick-Ass is beaten to the point that he has to have his bones reinforced with steel and has major nerve damage, making him almost impervious to pain). Perhaps this violence begets violence narrative is personified most by the main female lead Mindy Macready aka ‘Hit Girl’ who, because her mother was killed by the arch villain Frank D’Amico, has been trained to wreck vengeance on the mob. Her father Damon Macready aka ‘Big Daddy’ is so obsessed with vengeance, so stuck in the anger stage of grief, that he is willing to sacrifice his daughters childhood to turn her into a killing machine.

So the film leaves me asking is there any alternative to violence in solving the issues of crime and urban decay? Katie Deauxma, Lizewski’s girl friend, does offer an alternative narrative to a point, as her response to the evils in the world is to volunteer and to care and to collect the damaged and outcast people.

The second thing I thought about from the film, in a hopefully not too cheesy theological way, is that in the basic premise of the movie and comic book is a real challenge and possibility for making a difference. The whole premise of the movie is based on the question after 70 years of super hero comic books what if someone actually decided they would don a costume and go out and try and make a difference? Not that they were bitten by a radioactive spider or had the benefit of alien blood coursing round their veins, or even a vigilante who has been traumatised by crime, but just an ordinary citizen stepped out of the posture of being a bystander and did something heroic? There is a scene where Lizewski/Kick Ass is lying over the victim of a gang attack taking kicks and hits from three gang bangers where he is told by the victim to go and get away to which he responds ‘I won’t leave you”. A call for people to be willing to side with the oppressed and poor and side with them perhaps? Maybe the comic book and the super hero are not the right narrative to inspire people to step up and try and make a difference. But after two thousand years of the gospel narrative you have to wonder what if?... What if we took Jesus teaching seriously enough to step out of our comfort zones and to step out, not heroically, but with service and a willingness to stand with and alongside and to bring change? I wonder what would happen if more and more of us simply stopped reading the page and stepped out of the pages? We forget perhaps that we are called to incarnate and embody the gospel we read and the one who was gospel “good news”. The good thing is we don’t need a costume to do it ( I wouldn't look good in tights), or a strange name but we do have the assurance of Jesus that ‘Lo I am with you to the end of the world’. Hopefully Christians can be seen as more than just comic relief.

Paul summarises Jesus teaching in Romans 12

9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Homophonic captivity of the church (or Howard goes out on a limb in his musing)

Recently I’ve been talking to people who say such things as the charismatic movement that swept the church in the 1980’s and early nineties is dead and long gone. Maybe some Pentecostal churches maybe a bit reticent to see themselves in the same boat. But along side these conversations I’ve also been doing a courser out at Laidlaw College at Henderson here in Auckland called Missional Church Leadership and it’s got me thinking. I wonder if we hadn’t let a homophone derail what the spirit wanted to do in the church.

I used to think that as a church we had got fixated with the manifestations of the Holy Spirit rather than with the manifesto of the Holy Spirit, in a way that was reminiscent of the church in Corinth. It was easy to get fixated on the gifts of the Holy Spirit rather than what the Holy Spirit gave those gifts to do. Like the church at Corinth we saw such things as tongues and prophecy and healing as signs of God’s pleasure and presence and a justification of our spirituality and right relationship with God. Whereas the Manifesto of the spirit has always been making us more like Christ, a call to unity to love one another and empowering us to share that love with the world around us. I still think that to a certain extent that was and is something that we got wrong. But I think we’ve suffered from two words that are more homophonic (and I don’t think I’ve become homophone-aphobic) than manifestation and manifesto.

Those words are presence and presents. Could it be we had focused on the presents of the Spirit (the gifts) and not on the real gift the presence of the Spirit with and within us: The fact that we are God’s spirited people? There was and is a very individualistic understanding of the Holy Spirit that came out of the Charismatic movement. The spirit dwells in me and gives me gifts that I may serve the body of Christ in a spectacular way. Almost to the point that it became therapeutic, a spiritualisation of self-actualisation, rather than theo-centric: open to what the spirit was wanting to do with in the whole of the body. We focused on the we all have a part to play rather than we are one body. We saw the priesthood of all believers through individual eyes, our personal connection to God rather than the idea in Peter 2:9 “You (plural) are a royal priesthood a holy nation.”

Now I’m wondering if we had missed the real gift the presence of the Spirit of God in our midst and in our world. The spirit is still there and still drawing us to become more Christ-like but in a way that says the spirit is in us all and it’s as we come together in love that the Spirit speaks to and through each other. That’s why I feel that as several biblical scholars have pointed out the gifts of the spirits seem to come in pairs. Tongues with interpretation, prophecy with decrement ( a community function), healing with gifts of faith, words of wisdom with words of knowledge (wisdom is really that ability to rightly apply the knowledge we have). I could go on helping others and administration.

In the end I wonder if we have been in danger of not trusting that the Spirit of God is present in this new community, this new way to be human. I’ve been wrestling with Tim Keel’s book ‘Intuitive leadership’ and I guess I see as he does this outworking of a case of homophonic confusion being manifest in people looking to leaders and experts to ‘fix’ the places they find there church is at rather than realising that the Spirit is present in the people of God, we are God’s spirited people. The Spirit is present and at work in the world and just maybe it’s as we seek God together that we will see where the spirit is and where the spirit is leading.

I’m amazed just recently when I speak at churches and take services that when I finish by acknowledging the reality of who the people who are present are that it often feeling like people are waking up (maybe it has to do with my preaching style who knows if the best gift i can give people is an extra 20-30 minutes rest a week it’s something) But I thinks it’s because when they hear that they are God’s Spirited people that Christ dwells within them, that he has Given them his spirit that it awakens something deep and true within them that we have lost, or at least is well hidden behind ideas of clericalism and individuality and well consumerism.

Keel’s book points to the fact that we need to listen to one another our pains and our joys, our passions and our stories and in that we may sense the Spirits breath within his body. The challenge for leaders (particularly ones like me who just love to talk) is to listen, to be with and alongside.