SHORT AND SWEET – 13

‘Are you having great sex with your wife/husband nowadays?’

I wonder how you’d react if someone asked you a question like this after church one Sunday. And imagine if they wanted details. I doubt if you’d start sharing.

In Britain, we’re relatively private, so we don’t ask questions like this. Actually, I’m not sure I know of any culture where people make inquiries of this sort. However, there’s another question we never, ever ask and it’s this one:

‘Would you mind sending me your bank statements for the past year?’

When you think about it, your financial affairs are probably just as private as your sex life. You don’t want people knowing how you spend your money. Why is that?

Just as the question about sex focuses on the most private details of how you use your body, your financial data tells them something far more important.

It tells them about your soul. Who you really are.

Your spending, your giving, your priorities, your values, they’re all to be found in your bank statement. And who wants to give away that kind of information?

So be careful of judging people based on appearances. You have no idea how much they are giving away, or even what their expenses are, let alone their income or savings.

Second, bank statements don’t lie. If you’re ready to be challenged by God, then get on your knees with a Bible in one hand and your bank statement in the other.

And please don’t worry. If I see you in church, I won’t be asking you about your income.

Or your sex life. Promise!

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SHORT AND SWEET – 11

Apart from watching The Wizard of Oz, ever met a straw man? Straw man is code in discussion forums for ‘an argument I’m not making.’ You struggle to make progress against the actual argument, so you mischaracterize your opponent’s argument, making it easier to dismantle.

Presumably because a straw man collapses so easily. Poof! It’s gone.

Here’s one you’ll hear a lot:

We secular humanists, we can be good too! You high-and-mighty religious people, you claim we can’t be good. That’s so unfair!

Behold the straw man.

So-called religious people – that is a perjorative very often, for Christians – never claim that secular people can’t be good people. That’s the straw man. Poof! Down he falls.

The argument we make is this:

Secularism cannot give a sound basis for ‘the good.’ There’s nothing here about a secular person not being virtuous or anything of the sort. It’s a philosophical argument, and it takes deep thinking to tease it out.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or secular, don’t mischaracterize your opponent. It’s wrong and misleading. Christians do it too. So, be careful to understand what your opponent is saying, so you can answer. How else will you be faithful to 1 Peter 3.15 if you’re not listening properly?

Have a great day.

The Maze Runner

This past weekend, I finished reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Then my son, Luke, and I went to see the movie. As is so often the case, the book was far better than the film. We both agreed on that. Nevertheless, both were entertaining.

Whenever I read any fiction of watch any movie, TV show or even go to the theatre (rarely, sadly), I’m always on the lookout for connections between the story and the Story; themes which affirm that the one Story which is most profoundly true is still leaving echoes inside human beings, even broken ones. It seems that we simply cannot tell stories without reflecting in numerous ways the deeper reality of who we are, what we need, what we desire, what we long for, why we matter . . . I could go on. And every time I read stories, I’m reminded of how astonishingly vacuous, misguided, colourless and profoundly untrue is the Story given by our culture. I speak, of course, of secularism humanism. Materialism. Atheism. A story so unutterably awful and false, it deserves to be shamed every time it rears its ugly head.

Time plus Matter plus Chance is no Story to hang your hat on. It is devoid of Hope.

What are stories? They are the means by which we discover meaning. That verb I use advisedly. Discover. Filmmakers don’t necessarily think through the deeper themes of what they communicate. Sometimes they do – the Wachowski brothers, the Cohen brothers are exceptions, perhaps – but mostly, they unwittingly reveal Truth simply by reflecting on what makes humans tick, what drives us, what we desire, the forces with which we wrestle. The best ones know instinctively what makes a great story. They can recognize a great script and what is needed to turn it into a beautiful work of art.

And then, of course, there’s just old-fashioned entertainment. Make stuff blow up and male teens are hooked. Let’s call that our baser nature!

So, what connections, what cracked mirrors did I find in The Maze Runner? Here are a few:

Contains mild spoilers.

The boys are sent to a glade in the middle of a giant maze by people called Creators. Captivity is bad. They desire freedom.

The Creators, who have imprisoned them, are considered the enemy. A dystopian vision of the future is a very common theme nowadays.

The boys live in community, each one learning to do a job necessary for the survival of the group. They must work together to survive.

The boys who are sent to the Glade don’t know who they are. They can only remember their names. Loss of core identity causes great pain.

One boy, however, is different. He’s the main character called Thomas. He is a salvation figure, who goes through a process of self-discovery as his memory returns gradually. (Done well in the book, very badly in the film). He is opposed by a boy who’s angry, who blames him for their condition. Thomas has a real-life enemy who’s trying to obstruct him in his quest to save the group.

The boys have a clear purpose: to escape from the Maze. They discover a code – meaning – which helps them work out how to escape from the Maze. The Creators, they discover, have set them a test. Strength, perseverance, working as a team, bravery are the qualities needed to pass the test.

Yet . . .

Protecting the weak is good. In an agonizing scene near the end, our hero, who has led his people to freedom – echoes of the Exodus – is unable to save his friend. It’s a moving moment in the book. Less so in the film.

Not surprisingly, there is the inevitable scene in which one of the boys sacrifices himself to save another.

Drenched with pathos and heart-rending to watch – mirroring as it does the greatest act of love performed on earth – paying the ultimate price for the sake of another will always move an audience to tears.

Which is as it should be.

Purpose. Value. Meaning.

Stories don’t work without this Holy Triumvirate. Characters must have value or we won’t care what happens to them. They must have a clear purpose. They must have a challenge to overcome. Actions must mean something and that meaning is related to the first two, that humans are valuable and we’re here for a reason. It seems so blindingly obvious, you’re probably wondering why I’m writing it down.

Because we need reminding.

All stories contain themes, tarnished reflections of the True Story. That human beings really are valuable. Not just for the purpose of a story, but really, truly valuable. That humans really do have a purpose on this planet. That actions contain meaning. It matters what choices you make because there is order – a way things should be – to the universe and even in our brokenness, we are still able to perceive it, though dimly.

And that’s why Time plus Matter plus Chance is so unutterably awful. No value. No purpose. No meaning. No . . . the way things should be. And of course, no Hope.

And it’s why our Big Story is not just wonderful because it is true. It is wonderful because it makes sense of our stories and our lives. C.S. Lewis once wrote,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

And every time I read a story or watch a movie, I see the shining lights of Value, Purpose and Meaning, telling me that I’m valuable; I have a purpose, my actions mean something.

Now which book shall I read next . . . ?

© Richard Collins 2014

Something rather than Nothing

From my last post, you may remember that I mentioned a series of Youtube videos called How (movie title) should have ended. I expressed my strong dislike for such videos. To be more precise, there is one in particular which I watched and from which I recoiled with horror. I’m the emotional type!

So, here’s why.

The Youtube video is called How Lord of the Rings should have ended. Just below the screen, the user has uploaded this strapline:

Gandalf forgot a very simple option when the fellowship decided to destroy the ring.

The video contains cheap animation and lasts just over two minutes. It has over 23 million views. The gist of it is this: While Sauron is distracted, Gandalf and the four hobbits are carried by a huge eagle to Mt. Doom. As they fly over, Frodo drops the ring into the lava which swirls deep in the mountain thereby destroying it. Sauron is defeated. As the ‘victors’ fly away, their dialogue goes like this:

-Well, that was incredibly easy.

-Yes, it was.

-Can you imagine what it would be like if we had walked the entire way?

-Ho ho, don’t be so ridiculous. (They all laugh)

One of the posted comments:

I always thought LOTR was padded. Three hours per movie? Why not just have Sam and Frodo FLY to Mt. Doom instead of walking the whole goddamn way?

So, what is so objectionable about this video? Isn’t it just a bit of fun? Well, of course it’s ‘just a bit of fun,’ but underneath, there’s a subtext which concerns me greatly.

If there’s struggle, if there’s pain, we don’t want it. Indeed, if it can be avoided, it should be.

You’ll notice, first of all, the use of the words ‘simple,’ and ‘easy’ in the Youtube users’ remarks. If an easier option is available, it must, by definition, be preferable. Why tramp over those jagged rocks, scale the mountain, do battle with Shelob . . . why have anything to do with Gollum if you can fly over the mountain and solve your problem in one easy move?

If you found that you didn’t have an immediate answer to this question, then well, I think that’s a problem.

The writer, Tim Keller, in his excellent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, makes this superbly observed point: Modern secular humans lack any useful resources for coping with suffering.

Given the Story they propose, which ends with extinction, suffering is devoid of any kind of value or purpose. When you only have one life, suffering is always a hindrance, an obstruction to personal happiness. And personal happiness is the only goal worth pursuing. There is no silver lining, there is nothing to be gained from going through adversity. The tragedy is that Christians are deeply influenced by this aspect of our society’s zeitgeist. Indeed, when confronting the existence of evil and suffering, Christians are often left shrugging their shoulders, unable to offer any kind of meaningful answer. So, let’s address one of the most basic questions regarding human existence.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Whoa, that came from out of left field (If you’re a UK reader, that’s a baseball reference!) Let me explain.

Make no mistake. All the evil in the world was foreseen by our Creator. I wonder if you’ve ever heard this one? The world isn’t as God intended. When Adam and Eve fell, the world stopped being the one that ‘God intended.’ Words are powerful things, aren’t they? They alter how you see the world. Think for a moment. What kind of God doesn’t always get what He wants, doesn’t get what he intended?

Let me be absolutely clear about this. The God of the Bible, the real God, the one who exists eternally and in glory, always, always gets what he wants. Always. God isn’t God unless his power is omni- and his knowledge is omni-. So yes, that means that the entire history of the universe is known to your Creator. And mine. All the good stuff and all the bad. Before it happens. That means that this world is the one which God planned from within his timeless existence (it’s okay, not even the brightest philosophers know how he does it either – you’re not alone!) And it means this is indeed the world which God ‘intended,’ if by ‘intended’ we mean the one which he foresaw and which he created. And of course, there is only one of those and you’re living in it.

In another post, I’ll address how his intentions can incorporate the Fall but right now, let’s apply this to the problem of suffering. If God knows that the Holocaust will take place, or the Hundred Years War or the 1918 Influenza pandemic, then why, oh why, did he choose to create in the first place? When he chose to write the Story, why didn’t he choose an easier option? Why didn’t Christ die a couple of weeks after Adam fell? Why go through this lengthy trawl through Israelite history (hiking up mountains and fighting huge spiders)? Why not sort things out nice and tidily at the beginning?

The first answer to this question comes from the book of Job. As you might imagine, this book informs a lot of my views on pain and suffering. In chapter 38, God finally gives his response to Job and his ‘friends.’ We’ve waited for 37 chapters, remember, and we sit with baited breath to hear what the Ultimate Authority will tell us. And his response is a description of divine power. What?!? Yup. I’m God and you are not. That just about sums it up. It’s beautifully written but that’s about it. I made a lot of stuff and . . . you haven’t.

But once you think a little deeper, you realize that God’s answer makes perfect sense. It’s more than an assertion of his power, a reminder that we are puny and he is our creator. It’s a category distinction and that’s immensely important. This particular category distinction makes all the difference. To tell a creature, ‘you wouldn’t understand’ or ‘you are not privy to such knowledge’ is one thing. But it’s so much more than that. Just read this verse:

Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

If you are not humbled by it, then . . . well, you should be. You ignorant modern man, who wishes for things to be made easy, who thinks that an ‘easier option’ is even available, who hasn’t bothered to think through the ramifications of your criticism, be still and listen to the One whose knowledge not only surpasses yours infinitely but whose knowledge is in a category which you don’t occupy, for it is Divine Knowledge and you are NOT divine.

Why is the problem of pain and suffering so hard to understand? Because we’re human. We’re not God.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Because God deemed it right and good to create a world in which evil and suffering exist, because in his infinite wisdom, he is at work to achieve his purposes, which are right and good. If you think you know better, then you are simply asserting knowledge which you do not possess. And that’s ignorance; it’s not knowledge.

The second reason that I dislike those Youtube videos has to do with the issue of greater goods. Greater goods are the benefits which arise from struggle, pain, difficulty, suffering. Let’s summarize the unintentional wishes of our naïve Youtube friends.

Let’s get rid of the profound and deeply touching friendship forged between Frodo and Samwise Gamgee. Let’s eliminate the courage displayed repeatedly by both of these hobbits. Let’s do away with that perseverance which Sam displays when Frodo is unable to walk the final steps up Mt. Doom. Let’s cancel out the grace which pours out of Sam all the way there, when his friend, Frodo, believes Gollum instead of trusting his friend from childhood. Let’s get rid of all these benefits and while we’re at it, let’s delete the rest of the cast, whose friendships and courage and love and goodness shine like stars in the darkness.

In the face of greater goods, our response ‘suffering hurts so it must be stopped immediately’ surely appears misguided. And yet, when your child is suffering, ‘stop it now!’ seems the only natural response. We are too small, too inward-focused to appreciate what is taking place. We think we know better, when we are ignorant of our own ignorance.

In the New Testament, you’ll notice that there is a lot written about suffering. Peter, in particular, references the suffering of the saints a lot. Where does he write that they should pray for it all to go away? Nowhere. Greater goods are nowhere more in focus than in those numerous passages from Peter and Paul on perseverance and patience and most of all, trust in God.

God is far more interested in developing human beings who trust him than eliminating suffering at every turn. Indeed, perhaps heaven itself is not fit for beings who have avoided suffering at all costs. I believe that God’s development of virtue in the human being is one of his most important objectives in writing our Story. In LOTR, Samwise Gamgee reflects on the story of which he is a part and on stories in general:

It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.

What if the development of the soul – crafted in the crucible of pain and suffering – is essential to its ability to appreciate the wonders of heaven? What if souls thrill to the glory of God, seen most clearly in the crucified Christ . . . only when they have undergone a measure of deprivation and agony themselves?

Maybe when that new day comes, souls who have learned to trust, who have persevered, who have sacrificed, are the ones who possess perfected vision.

They are the ones who can truly see that the sun really does shine out the clearer.

© Richard Collins 2014

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 Well, that was rather heavy. If you feel the need for some light relief, click here.

Probably a Piece of Sky

PROBABLY A PIECE OF SKY – THE PARADOX OF WORTH

Have you ever completed a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle? You know, a panorama depicting a tranquil agricultural or maritime scene? There’s often a lot of sky, isn’t there? And almost every piece seems to be the same shape. Now imagine your jigsaw covers an entire football pitch. Every piece is a person’s life. Yours included. It’s an ocean scene, with the odd tall ship, the size of say, a ping pong ball, bobbing on the water. The vast majority is sky or sea. The pieces that make up the ships, with their colourful sails and elaborate rigging, are famous people: Leonardo, Winston, Adolf, Teresa, Paul and Caesar. You and I? We’re a piece of sky. Or sea.

The fact is, you’re not particularly special. You thought you were? Well, in reality, you’re not. You probably don’t stand out very much. You’re not the brightest or the prettiest. Nor are you the fattest or the slimmest or the fastest or the funniest. If you had never lived, your non-existence would produce no perceptible effect on the flow of human history. You are no Alexander the Great or Napoleon. You won’t ever lead a nation or paint a masterpiece. You won’t win a Grand Slam in any sport. You won’t cure a disease.

Oh, you think you’re special because God loves you? He does indeed love you very much, and he watches your every move.  Something he does for every one of the approximately 6.9 billion people on this planet. He hears your prayers and the prayers of your neighbour as well as the prayers of billions of other people from all over the world who call upon him. You’re no different to every other person on the earth who speaks to the Creator. You ask. He hears. Where’s the special in that?

When you’re gone, it’s highly unlikely that you will leave a lasting impact. Very few people do. Leonardo da Vinci, Watson and Crick, and Columbus are very rare exceptions. Extremely rare. Thomas Edison may never be forgotten, but he’s one of a very, very small group of people who can actually claim to have altered the course of human history. As for you, you will make millions of choices in your life and though you may consider them important, they will leave behind almost no effect on this world. If human history were a pond, the ripples you’re currently making are well nigh invisible.

Sometimes we console ourselves by telling ourselves that when we influence a child, we can change the course of history. Really? That’s a little grandiose, don’t you think? Entire nations have come and gone, each containing remarkable people raised by other gifted people – many more noteworthy and talented than you – yet they are forgotten. Ninth century Germany? Seventh century Mongolia? Twelfth century Spain. What is the lasting legacy of the thousands of villagers and townsfolk who lived and died in these countries? Regardless of the young lives you may have touched, the fact is, four generations from now, you and I will be little more than a line on a genealogical chart buried in the library or tucked away in a filing cabinet. Or worse. Lost in cyberspace. You are living and will continue to live a quiet life that has little effect beyond your immediate family and friends. Even if you have your 15 minutes of fame one day, by appearing on TV for some reason, you will simply join the millions who have experienced short term attention to drop back into anonymity afterwards. So, outstanding you are not.

But have you noticed something? When you’re working on a huge jigsaw – you know, one with lots of sky and sea – if a piece of sky or sea is missing, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Missing coloured pieces are easy to overlook, but sky and sea? They’re easy to spot. You will always notice a missing piece of sky.

So, you may never be famous, but you are completely unique. You are special beyond words. There is no one like you. No one. You possess a completely unique DNA structure and have done so since you were nothing more than a microscopic dot inside your mother. No one laughs like you, sings like you, cries like you. You are the only one who can run, draw, paint and dance the way you do. No one struts their stuff like you do. Your smile produces a unique effect on those whom you love. No one in your family is like you. Even if you’re an identical twin, your twin isn’t you, and that means you’re not identical at all. You’re unique. You’re the only person to possess the qualities you do. And God has no back up plan, just in case you fail. You are his first and last option for being you. There are no extra “you’s” just waiting for their chance. There is just you, living here, right now. You’re it. You produce a completely unique effect on those around you, something that no one else can produce. 6.9 billion other people currently living have no hope at all of replicating you or impacting the world the way you do.

Furthermore, Christ died for you. To save you. And if there were no other people on the planet, he would have died just for you. Almighty God, who formed the universe in a staggering burst of creative power, gave himself up and died for you. Does that make you special? Actually no. Sorry to disappoint. This is not what makes you special. It’s true that God responds to your most profound needs. For reconciliation. For restoration. But he doesn’t start with you. He starts . . . with himself.

It’s sometimes because we think we’re special that we think God expresses himself first and foremost in response to who we are.  He doesn’t. Whereas we are contingent beings, always responding to our environment and circumstances, God is contingent upon no one and no thing. When he acts, he does so out of the liberty of expressing his nature. And so he chooses to act – when he does act – in accordance with his nature and with one primary goal in focus: To demonstrate the wonders of his glory. He always, always starts with himself, because he is sufficient unto himself. He doesn’t need us at all.

We are gloriously superfluous to God. And that’s a good thing.

It is because we are not necessary that God’s decision to create us is all the more remarkable and all the more praiseworthy. God knew the cost and chose to pay it, because of the overflow of his love. We are the recipients of the extravagant love of God, brought into existence in order for our Creator to exhibit his character and share the wonders of his being. We’re special, then, for two reasons. First, because we’re made in the image of our Creator. We’re like our Father. And second, because we’re given a unique part to play in his big story. It’s the story he’s most interested in. The story is everything to him, because it’s his means of showing us who he is. And only human beings, who are made like him, can take leading roles. The rest of creation has a role, to be sure, but as bit parts compared to the central roles set apart for us. All of us. This is where our specialness is found.

It’s not found in being one of those very rare individuals who has left a lasting legacy, like Henry VIII or Galileo or Jane Austen. Neither is it based upon our appearance, our talents, our possessions, our birth or our connections. It has absolutely nothing to do with self-esteem, as though telling ourselves we’re special makes it so.  It’s based pure and simply upon the unique role we play in God’s story.

And no one can play your part. No one. No one can live your life except you. No one cares for Aunt Betty like you. No one listens to Cheryl at church who tells you about all her woes every Sunday. No one sits at the desk by the window next to Billy in class . . . except you. And no one shares their lunch with him the way you do. Except you. You make a difference in other people’s lives in a completely unique way that no one else can produce. Every choice you make, every move you make is significant, because it’s part of God’s story, and your part is essential to the whole. God chose you to be you, so that in being you, you would do a job that no one else can do. No one else has the relationships you do, and no one can love others the way you do, because no one else is you. God is counting on you to learn and grow and trust him, so that he can become increasingly known to those around you. He is in the process of changing you from being you to being “more you!” Becoming like God’s son is a glorious transformation of your soul into the person you are destined to become in relationship with your God.  Self-realization is the process not of becoming what you want to be, but the person God intends you to become. It starts and ends with the work of God.

When you become “more you,” within God’s story, when you learn to trust that God is changing you within a narrative he’s writing, then you’ll find contentment and peace. For whenever specialness is based on extraordinary human achievement – be it good or evil – it is divorced from its true source. Mother Teresa, Benjamin Franklin and Louis Pasteur aren’t special because we can see their achievements more easily than we see the achievements of others. They’re not special because they’re more gifted, brave or compassionate than others. They’re special for the same reason that we’re all special. They’re part of God’s big story. It’s true that their lives burn more brightly than most, but that doesn’t make them more important. It makes them . . . different. Every life that is lived, the good ones and the bad ones – and bad lives find no exoneration in this truth – form an essential component of the tapestry that makes up human history. There is no choice, no event that is unimportant. It is ALL important, for human lives are God’s means of expressing his character. He creates history, enters it, reveals himself within it, and wastes none of it. That so many human lives appear to be “wasted” is an illusion. We are far too close to the tapestry – indeed we are each one of its threads – to see the magnificent tableau he is creating. And yet it exists and grows day by day as he reveals ever more of himself to humankind. That such a profound truth remains largely a mystery to us should come as no surprise. What is more astonishing is that God should choose to include us in his plan at all, given that we’re rebellious creatures, unworthy of the calling he places on our lives.

So, where do you find your significance? Do you go searching for it in the faces of those you control, influence . . . and even love? Is your importance resting on the shoulders of other people? Or do you find yourself drowning in the multitudes who have gone before, aware that you’re nothing but a blip in the heartbeat of history. Whether you think too much of yourself or conversely, lose yourself in the enormity of time and space, perhaps it’s time for you to gain some perspective. Perhaps it’s time to start living in the paradoxes. So here they are:

You’re not that important. You’re not. You’re desperately important. Yes, you are. You’re just one of millions. You’re one . . . in a million. Everyone is special, which means no one is special. You’re average at most things. Yet you’re the only one who can be you. Which makes you unique.

Get used to it. Your story isn’t that important. It’s essential. To the big story. Critical, because no one else can live it, but not nearly as important as you might think. So you’re big and small. At the same time.

Because the big story, God’s story, is the only story that really counts. Not your story. His story. You’re in it. You play a vital role. But you’re not that important. He is. Your uniqueness stems only from his decision to include you in his story. It begins and ends with him. The Writer has given you a role, but he is the one who takes precedence, and you’ll only appreciate your importance, your significance when you come to see your role within the story He is writing, when you come to terms with the fact that you are probably a piece of sky. And that’s okay. For when you do, you’ll find freedom in the knowledge that significance comes not from standing out, but standing up. Playing your part. Doing your thing. Changing and growing, and helping the story along. In the right direction.

Being part of a picture with an awful lot of sky. And sea.

For the glory of the Writer.

© Richard Collins