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Archive for March, 2009

 Like many churches across the country, we’re planning our involvement with the Passion for Life mission initiative taking place in Easter 2010.  Here are ten thoughts on these kinds of missions in no particular order.

  1. ‘A mission’ should be part of a church’s ongoing life of mission.  The one-off sports event with gospel talk at half time is one thing. Having a bunch of Christians join a local sports team season by season – befriending and gospelling non-Christians there – now that’s an ongoing life of mission.  Its effects will be so much more hidden and ambiguous than the grand week of events.  But the impact will be so much greater for the kingdom.
  2. ‘A mission’ should be owned by the whole congregation.  The priesthood of all believers applies especially here.  It takes a body working together with speaking and serving gifts working in harmony.  Too often we impose a mission on an unprepared church from the top down.  The events will be unbalanced, few will bring friends and the strong impression will be given that mission is something compartmentalized – done only at special times and only by special people.
  3. The greatest problem with our ‘missions’ is that typically our Christians don’t know any non-Christians.  Not very well anyway.  Now by all means door-knock your locality. By all means lift high the name of Jesus in your community at large. But our priority must be our neighbours, friends, colleagues and families with whom we are already involved.  Or if we’re not already involved, we ought to be.  Ideally ‘a mission’ should be a dew point collecting together the scores of gospel conversations that Christians are already having with the people they’re involved with.
  4. Our perceived need for apologetic events is inversely related to our willingness to love our neighbours.  In other words – if we actually loved our neighbours we’d probably find that we didn’t ‘need’ apologetics events after all.  The real trouble is that we’re not actually involved with non-Christians, we don’t really love them.  And so the only bridge into Christian things that we can think of is an ‘apologetic’ bridge.  I use the term ‘apologetics’ advisedly (click my ‘apologetics’ tag for more).  Because 1 Peter 3:15 (where the word ‘apologetics’ comes from) is not describing the ‘apologetics’ that people tend to do today.  1 Peter 3:15 is about giving the gospel reasons for the hope that is so obviously in you as evidenced by your many and deep interactions with unbelievers.  Now if we lived in 1 Peter 3:15-world then our friends and neighbours would see this hope and would ask us about it.  We could give some kind of witness, but – joy of joys – we could also bring them along to a mission event where this gospel hope would be proclaimed by a gifted evangelist.  And if this were the case we’d be praying to God that the evangelist would stop trying to be culturally relevant and would please just sock it to our friend with Christ. The reality is that a) our hope aint that evident and b) we don’t get close enough for non-Christians to see it anyway.  Therefore the only way we can think to get non-Christians in the door is to put on talks about “What Jesus would say to the G20 summit” or whatever. 
  5. Conversion is not a process. Conversion is a miracle. How much of our evangelistic strategy belies the evangel we say we believe. 
  6. Non-Christians are nowhere near as excited by ‘A Christian view of the Credit Crunch’ as Christians are.
  7. If it’s credibility you’re after, non-Christians figure that the thing (really the only thing) that Christians can speak on credibly is Christianity.  There might be a clue there.
  8. The bible must be front and centre if people are to truly trust the living God and not simply the oratory powers of a visiting speaker.
  9. Often we greatly underestimate the amount of Christian input a non-Christian is expecting / willing to bear once they’ve accepted an invitation by a trusted Christian friend.  It’s a huge deal for a non-Christian to come to an event in the first place.  They’re basically expecting to be proselytised.  But once they get there, guess who’s afraid of proselytising?  Not them.  Us.
  10. Evangelism is summons to Christ not the presentation of interesting information.  Calling people to repent and believe the gospel at our mission events sets our evangelism in its proper context.  Just by itself a call for people to trust Christ on the night is a powerful demonstration of the nature of the gospel. We ought to call people to Christ and not simply a follow up course  

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Audio of sermon preached today on first two servant songs

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Here tis

Lots of other posts on the topic here.

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A semi-imagined conversation

— Right.  Bible reading.  Here we go – Speak Lord, your servant is listening.  Ok, Matthew 11:28.  Jesus said “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”  Ok, good verse.  Thank You Lord.  But now let me think.  What is this verse really saying to me…?  Hmm, well of course “rest” is very theologically loaded.  Right from the seventh day of creation we see eschatological perfection modelled in Sabbath….

— Glen!

— Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

— Yes you’ve already said that.  And I’ve already spoken…

— … Oh indeed you have Lord and now I’m allowing your word to inform and shape my theological understanding that I might be transformed by the renewing… Well you know how the verse goes.  Anyway I find it fascinating that you say v28 right after v27 when you declare the trinitarian, christo-centric dynamic of all revel…

— Glen! 

— Speak Lord, your servant is listening

— Are you?

— Well trying to.  That’s why I’m thinking hard about how the verse fits in with the context and with the rest of the biblical witness.  I’m allowing my whole theology to be shaped by these concepts…

— These concepts?  Glen, have you actually come to me for rest today?

— Well.  My plan is to get a properly nuanced theology of rest in place.  And once I have this understanding I imagine the experience of rest will sort of, I don’t know, umm….

— Glen?

— Speak Lord your servant is listening

— Maybe later…

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god-seriously-self-lightly-21

 

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Here’s the audio of my talk on the subject

All this began here.

Then I had some initial thoughts on the usefulness of comedy here

There’s an excellent CS Lewis quote here

Here is a very expanded early version of the talk: part one, part two, part three, part four.

Then some follow up thoughts on blasphemy here and here.

 

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Isaiah’s servant songs are:

  1. Isaiah 42:1-7
  2. Isaiah 49:1-6
  3. Isaiah 50:4-9
  4. Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Now in the songs, the servant is clearly a figure who acts on behalf of the people.  He is a covenant for the people (42:6).  He will bring Jacob and Israel back to the LORD (49:5,6).  His word is the word the people should fear (50:10). He is rejected by the people yet suffers on their behalf (all of chapter 53).

Yet “servant” is also mentioned in and around these songs:

Isaiah 41:8,9 (You O Israel are my servant)

Isaiah 42:19 (Who is blind like my servant)

Isaiah 43:10  (You are my witnesses and my servant)

Isaiah 44:1,2  (Jacob my servant)

Isaiah 44:21  (My servant O Israel)

Isaiah 45:4  (Jacob my servant)

Isaiah 48:20  (His servant Jacob)

Here ‘servant’ refers to Israel/Jacob. 

Actually this is nothing new in Isaiah.  Jerusalem for instance can stand either for the corrupt, faithless generation under the LORD’s judgement or the centre of a new heavens and new earth that lies beyond the judgement.  Jerusalem is both the problem and the hope!

In a similar way the servant of the LORD is Israel.  The people really should be the LORD’s faithful witness, judge, light, salvation etc.  Yet earthly Israel is a crushing disappointment.  Nonetheless the hope is not apart from Israel.  The hope is the TRUE ISRAEL.  This Ideal Israel is what the songs set before us.  He takes a hold of old Israel and sweeps it up into His own triumphant work as Witness, Judge, Light, Salvation etc.  Servants do that – they stand for the people – see Moses or Job for instance. In fact this Ideal Servant is spoken of as the King of Isaiah 6 (cf 52:13) – High and lifted up.  The true King sums up in Himself His people and acts on their behalf.  His victory is their victory. 

And so the people may lament the servant Israel, yet at the same time they sing about THE TRUE ISRAEL, the Ideal Servant, the KING who stands in their place and acts as Israel.  He is their hope and the Light for we Gentiles.

Anyway that seems to be the sort of interpretation of ‘the Servant’ which takes seriously both sets of verses – the songs and the surrounding references. 

The one interpretation we should laugh off is the one that says “Foolish ancient people only understood half of these verses and so had no idea that there would be an individual Ideal Servant to stand for blind Israel.  It takes a later re-reading to understand that there is an individual Ideal Servant, Jesus”.   No, no. No need for such chronological snobbery thank you very much.

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By the way – has anyone read or heard anything good on the Servant Songs??  Please do let me know in the comments.

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One more thing on blasphemy…

… Interesting that the city clerk of Ephesus did not consider Paul to have blasphemed Artemis, their goddess. (Acts 19:37)  Along with strong and clear proclamation, Paul was obviously respectful in a way that gained the notice of the pagans.

Just something to bear in mind as we speak about other religions.

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After my comedy and christianity talk I was asked a question on blasphemy.  I had a Romans 2 quote up my sleeve which a) wasn’t much of an answer and b) I forgot on the day.  So here are a few extra thoughts.  To be honest I don’t really know about blasphemy – any ideas you guys?

  1. Comedy about Christian things is not at all the same as blasphemy.  (E.g. Life of Brian mainly makes fun of Christians not Christ, and much of what it says about Christians is on the money!).  
  2. By the same token comedy is not the only nor even the main vehicle for blasphemy – it just happens to be a ‘sharper’ form of communication and so gets more press.  (E.g. A Muslim may consider it just as blasphemous for a book to link the life and teaching of Mohammed with modern terrorism.  But when the point is made via a comic, it becomes incendiary.)  ‘Comedy’ should not be blamed for blasphemy just because it makes the same points more persuasively. 
  3. Jesus died on a blasphemy charge.  The people of God, the religious establishment, the bible guys – they made the blasphemy charge.  But they were wrong.  Really, really wrong.  The heathen Pilate gave Jesus His proper title in death (King of Jews) and the centurion confessed Him rightly (Son of God).  But the religious conservatives, they truly blasphemed the LORD.  It takes the people of God to really blaspheme.  And yet, even in this act Jesus prays ‘Father forgive them…’
  4. Heaven and hell depends on blasphemy.  Mark 3:28-39 “‘I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them.  But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.’  Jesus said this because they were saying ‘He has an evil spirit.'”   Every blasphemy will be forgiven a person, but if they continue to reject Jesus (as the Pharisees had been doing) then they blaspheme the Spirit Whose role is to testify to Christ.  This is the ultimate blasphemy.  Obviously you can blaspheme Christ and then repent (as Paul did, 1 Tim 1:13).  But there is an inveterate blaspheming of Christ that takes a person to hell. 
  5. If there’s one thing a non-Christian can do that should upset us it’s blasphemy.  (A couple of times I’ve told friends they can swear all they like, but don’t use mybest friend as a swear word.)  Correcting a non-Christian’s moral code won’t help a bit.  Correcting their view of Jesus, now that’s worthwhile.  It could be a great gospel witness to let everything else slide except His Name.
  6. It’s one thing to say blasphemy is wrong – it is!!  But the real question is what we should do when a non-Christian blasphemes Christ. 
  7. Your view of the sword is key in this discussion.  By sword I mean the whole apparatus of statehood – the legislature, judiciary and law enforcement.  Should matters of faith be upheld or coerced by the sword?  I don’t think so.  Ask yourself – why is blasphemy wrong?  Is it wrong because it’s against the law of the land?  Surely we don’t get at the evil of blasphemy by calling the cops!
  8. Romans 2:24 is an eye-opener.  Paul, reflecting on both Isaiah and Ezekiel says: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  Not because of them – those wicked heathen.  Because of youthe people of God!  Why isn’t our first response to blasphemy to come before Jesus and confess our part in bringing dishonour to His name? 
  9. The blasphemy we receive is a barometer of the gospel we preach.  What has the culture understood of what we reverence?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today’s church was ridiculed for worshipping the crucified God – as in the Alexamenos graffitt??  As it is the culture stumbles over entirely different stones we’ve placed in their way.  Shame on us.
  10. If it’s the church that’s ridiculed, the godly thing to do would be to own whatever is true about the accusations, and to seek to address them in contrition and repentance.
  11.  Turning the other cheek would be a radically Christian response – and what a witness.  Is it not what Jesus did on the cross as He is blasphemed, dying under the blasphemy charge!?  To apply this to today – Were there any Christians outside Jerry Springer: The Opera holding up “Jesus loves Lee and Herring”?  (Stewart Lee and Richard Herring wrote it).  Wouldn’t that have answered their blasphemy against Christ with the true strength of Jesus?
  12. The whole world was waiting to see how the Muslim world would react to the Mohammed comics.  Those who reacted violently confirmed every fear the comic was based upon.  The whole world also looks to Christians to see how we will respond.  And there is, on some level, an expectation that we will react differently.  There is an expectation that forgiveness will be part of our response.  And that’s a good thing.  But some Christians say “That’s the problem, these comedians target Christianity because they know we’ll put up with things the Muslims never would.”  Well yes.  But that weakness is precisely our strength.  May we go on being the only group on the planet that can actually handle ridicule and answer with grace.
  13. Spurgeon’s comment on apologetics is greatly applicable here:  “Defend Jesus??  Why I would rather defend a lion.  Let the Lion out of His cage, the Lion will defend Himself!”  We don’t respond to blasphemy by calling the cops but by preaching the gospel – the gospel that every blasphemy will be forgiven in the Blasphemed One.

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Here’s a snippet from Watchman Nee, read the whole quote from Dev:

Now the breaking of the alabaster box and the anointing of the Lord filled the house with the odor, with the sweetest odor. Everyone could smell it. Whenever you meet someone who has really suffered; been limited, gone through things for the Lord, willing to be imprisoned by the Lord, just being satisfied with Him and nothing else, immediately you scent the fragrance.

There is a savor of the Lord. Something has been crushed, something has been broken, and there is a resulting odor of sweetness. The odor which filled the house that day still fills the Church; Mary’s fragrance never passes away.

…We like to be always “on the go”: the Lord would sometimes prefer to have us in prison. We think in terms of apostolic journeys: God dares to put His greatest ambassadors in chains. “But thanks be unto God, which always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest through us the savor of his knowledge in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14)

 

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Like little children

Nothing transforms my prayer life like quoting Matthew 18:3 to myself:

Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Here’s Barth on coming to our Father in heaven as child-like beginners:

In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, found themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).

Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV.4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 80.

Source: Jason Goroncy

Have you ever heard a more heart-warming doctrine lecture??

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I was at a meeting of local Anglican clergy yesterday and got talking to a local minister at the coffee break.  I offered to pour him a brew and he said, “Oh I’ve given up coffee for lent.  You’d better make it half a cup.”

“Oh right.  Shall I make you a tea instead?” I offered, not wanting to lead a brother into sin.

“No, I think it’d be alright to have half a cup.  You see yesterday I allowed myself a coffee for the sake of St Patrick.  But actually it turned out to be a pretty awful brew, so I’ll have half a cup today to make up for it.”

“Oh” I said.

“That probably sounds ridiculous to you” he said…

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…And so idolatry is not the way back to paradise, and neither is worldly success and neither even is biblical religion. All those ways are ridiculous. Here is the way back to paradise – it’s the LORD Jesus Himself.And this is the very deepest irony of the bible – the very deepest irony of the universe. Jesus Himself is the way back to God.

Every other way to God assumes that humanity has to work salvation before a silent, watching, helpless god. And when you think that you tie yourself up in ridiculous knots and the bible laughs at you. But Jesus shockingly shifts our perspective. In Jesus it is God who works salvation before a silent, watching, helpless humanity. This is the ultimate shocking shift of perspective – we don’t work our way to Him. He comes to us. It’s not about us performing for Him. He performs FOR US. In our place. On our behalf. The LORD lives the life we should live. And then He dies the death we should die.

Jesus so enters into OUR predicament, He even takes on our suffering, our curse, our judgement, our death.

Think about the cross for a second. It is THE most serious thing ever and it is comedic. Thoroughly comedic.

There is Jesus, the Man who claimed to be God, nailed to a piece of wood. The Jewish authorities considered Him a blasphemer. The Romans executed Him as a common criminal. His friends and followers have abandoned Him. Even God His Father has abandoned Him on the cross. All is darkness as this Man in the prime of His life is cut off. And you know what His last words were? “I did it!” “I did it!” You could translate Jesus’ last words as “Finished! Paid! Completed! Done!” Jesus’ last words, dying a godforsaken death, were “I did it!”

What did He do? How does the cross accomplish anything? Friends, don’t you get it? You can’t climb into heaven to be with Him – and you only look ridiculous when you try. You don’t climb up to heaven. He climbed down to be with you. He came and met us where we are – in the depths of darkness and wickedness and curse. So the LORD who cries out “I did it!” in the depths of our tragedy – He is the LORD who’s done EVERYTHING to bring you into His presence. He’s gone to hell and back to work your salvation. And He offers it to you right now – IN all your darkness. IN all your ridiculous idolatry, IN all your trying to make a success of yourself, IN all your attempts to be very religious. IN all your laughable stupidity and wilful evil – Jesus says “HERE, I’ve done it. I’VE done it.” Will you stop your striving and receive it? Will you just get it? Don’t you get it?

When Jesus rose three days later it was the ultimate shock, the ultimate Custard Pie in the face of humanity’s greatest enemy. Death was dethroned. Which means Christians can now taunt death – where’s your victory grave, where’s your sting death? Jesus death swallowed up death.

It’s the ultimate irony. Jesus wins us heaven, by going to hell. He kills death, by dying. He judges evil, by being judged. He gains victory through total surrender. He enters our tragedy – and through the most tragic event of all, brings a comedy. Isn’t that ironic?! It’s the deepest of all ironies. But when you get it, you’ll have a shocking shift in perception. You’ll see Jesus differently, yourself differently, life, death and eternity differently. It will be the most happy realization. It’s what Christians call “faith”, but really it just means getting the joke. Getting this central joke that unlocks all reality – How can Jesus the LORD die but in doing so shout out “I did it!”?

Do you get it? Do you get what Jesus did? If you don’t get it, don’t stop pestering every Christian you know until you get it. Don’t stop coming to church, keep coming. Pick up a bible and read Jesus’ life stories, pray that God would help you to get it. Because when you do, you’ll rejoice, the angels in heaven will rejoice – there will be laughter all round when you get it.

If you don’t get it – every laugh you’ll ever have will ultimately be hollow.

You know my big problem with “The Life of Brian”. It’s not that it satirizes Christians – Jesus was a lot harsher to the religious of His own day. It’s not even that it satirizes the Christian story – I don’t expect non-Christians to reverence what we reverence. Here’s my problem with “The Life of Brian” – the ending.

You see it’s actually not a comedy – not in the classical sense. Actually, technically, the film is a tragedy. It ends with the hero crucified and there’s no triumph, there’s no “I did it!” – there’s only failure and death in the end. And all they can do is whistle a wry little ditty as they choke to death on the cross. “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.” Now it’s a fine film. A funny film. But in the end it’s gallows humour. In the end, it’s just a tragedy. The problem with the Life of Brian is not that it is a comedy. The problem is it’s not a comedy. Without the victory of Jesus, without the resurrection of Jesus, the Life of Brian is just one more tragedy sprinkled with gallows humour. And if you don’t get the Good News of Jesus, you may laugh, you may laugh loud – but you won’t laugh long. If death’s the final word then all your humour will be gallows humour. Only Christ can give you true comedy, joyful comedy, lasting comedy.
Comedy is serious. Christianity is comedic.

 

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As I close let me highlight three ways the bible says we try to get back to paradise, all of which the bible ridicules.

First is we redefine God. It happened as soon as Adam and Eve disbelieved the LORD. The devil said ‘Are you really going to let the LORD be God?’ And we constantly say no, and so we start to construct our own gods. The bible calls this idolatry and in many cultures it has meant literally chopping down a piece of wood and carving an idol. But we do it ourselves every day. If you’ve ever said “I like to think of god like this…” You’ve carved your own idol. If you’ve ever said “I’m not sure about this Jesus stuff, I think what’s really important is…” You’ve carved your own idol. If you’ve ever thought “I know what the bible says, but this is really what I’m living for…” you’ve carved your own idol. And you worship and serve that thing. And it has the power of life or death over you. Because when that thing comes through it’ll feel like life, when it fails, it’ll feel like death. You’ve got your own god, your own heaven, your own hell. And the bible is constantly ridiculing this do-it-yourself way of life.

There’s a hilarious passage in Isaiah 44 where the prophet is ridiculing idol makers who cut down a piece of wood and have the tremendous insight required to discern which end of the tree trunk is best for firewood and which is best to be worshipped as a deity. This bit – firewood. This bit – mt lord, my god, my all in all. How arbitrary! But that’s how ridiculous it is to reject the living God and to live for anything else.

Or in 1 Kings 18 there is a wonderful passage where the prophet Elijah goes head to head with the prophets of the false god – Baal. Elijah says, you set up a sacrifice to your god, I’ll set up a sacrifice to the LORD – the God who sends fire down on the sacrifice – He is really God.

26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no-one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. 27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no-one answered, no-one paid attention.

Isn’t that tragic? Isn’t it comic? You see Comedy is serious. And Christianity is comedic. But this is so common in the bible. People are always living for things that are not god. And we dance and we shout and we cut ourselves and we bleed for these things hoping they’ll deliver – but there’s no-one there. Baal’s not there for you. All human religion has busy people working for a helpless god. It’s tragic and it’s comic. But Comedy is serious and Christianity is comedic.

So idolatry – re-defining God – is one response humanity has to being cast from the LORD’s presence. A second, very much related, response is seeking to get out and make it in the world. Make the most of now. Be a success.

Jesus met a guy like this. The Gospels call him a rich young ruler. He was wealthy, he was powerful. By his own admission he was upright and moral. He was a success in the world and everyone present thought that this man was on the fast-track to eternal life. If anyone could earn entrance to the kingdom, this guy had it in the bag. He races up to Jesus to ask whether he’s done enough to merit paradise. In response to this man Jesus utters some very famous and very funny words. He says “It’d be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven.” That is a seriously shocking thing to say. Everyone thought this successful rich, upright man was on heaven’s A-list. Jesus says “That guy will be in heaven the day you get a camel through the eye of a needle.” Jesus goes on to say – it’s impossible. It is humanly impossible for any human being to be rich enough, successful enough, popular enough, upright enough to get into heaven. It’s just that Jesus chose to say it in a funny way. Camel through the eye of a needle is ridiculous. Even if you grease the camel and push. Even with a blender – this is impossible. Jesus uses some serious comedy here because Christianity is serious.

The third way humanity tries to get back into the LORD’s presence is of course religion. And you might think, well this is the right answer surely. Don’t make up false gods, don’t rely on wealth or success to get you in – but be religious. Join the right religious group – upright, biblical religion – follow the rules and work your way back into God’s good books. Right? Wrong. And this might shock you but the bible ridicules the religious more than any other group. More than the idolaters, more than the worldly people – it ridicules bible-based, moral-looking religious types.

We often think that when comedians mock Christians they’re being godless. I think often when comedians mock Christians they’re being Christ-like. Jesus went after the bible-based, moral looking religious types more than any other group. There was a religious group in Jesus’ day called the Pharisees. And Jesus went after them with unrelenting and devastating satire. And the people in Jesus’ day were shocked.

— Don’t the Pharisees radiate purity Jesus?
— Oh yeah – they dazzle like a white-washed tomb” Said Jesus, “Brilliant on the outside – rotting death on the inside.”

Talk about corruscating wit!

Jesus never stopped ridiculing the religious types of His day. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, the most sustained teaching that we have from Jesus in the bible, Jesus constantly refers to these hypocrites. He doesn’t just tell His people the way of the kingdom, He engages in savage observational comedy about the hypocrites. When He speaks of how we should give He says: “Don’t be like the hypocrites, they commission a trumpet fanfare [ta da!] “I’m giving.” And when you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to stand on street corners, so they get two lots of people to see them saying “I’m praying!” And when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites. They actually disfigure their faces. They walk around looking like they’re sucking chilli off a thistle so people say ‘what’s wrong’? “I’m fasting!” Jesus ridicules the religious.

He notices how judgemental they are. He says they’re always pointing out the speck in other people’s eyes – all the while they’ve got a tree trunk lodged in their own. That is a funny image. But it taps into the hypocrisy we all have. We all like pointing out the faults of others. We all feel better about ourselves by judging others – we all get a sense of moral high-ground by taking others down a peg or two. As George Carlin said – when you’re driving, everyone who’s slower than you is an idiot, everyone faster than you is a maniac. We’re constantly justifying ourselves – pointing out the specks in other people’s eyes. Jesus says You’ve got a plank of four by two protruding from your eye socket. Stop judging others to justify yourself. In fact – just stop justifying yourself. It’s hypocrisy.

Because do you notice how similar the religious are to the idolaters? The idolaters were very busy working for a passive, silent, helpless god. Actually the bible guys were doing the same. They became very busy, very melodramatic supposedly working for the LORD – but actually their whole way of life was assuming that the LORD is a passive, silent, helpless god who needs us to perform.

Jesus came into the world to tell us He’s not like that. He’s the LORD who works salvation FOR US.

And so idolatry is not the way back to paradise, and neither is worldly success and neither even is biblical religion – all those ways are ridiculous. Here is the way back to paradise – it’s the LORD Jesus Himself.

And this is the very deepest irony of the bible – the very deepest irony of the universe. Jesus Himself is the way back to God…

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Final installment here.

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Here’s my central contention:

Comedy is serious. And Christianity is comedic.

Now maybe that’s a shocking shift in perception for you – in some ways I hope it is. But that’s my contention: Comedy is serious. And Christianity is comedic. The bible is comedic. The Christian message is comedic:

I mean that in two senses.

In the classical sense the bible is a comedy. It is a comedy as opposed to a tragedy. In the classical use of the word, comedy refers to a certain genre of story in which people or cultures struggle and collide and through that struggle and collision you have a eu-catastrophe – a good catastrophe. A clash that resolves into a happy ending.

A modern example of the classic comedy genre would be the movie Shrek. Even if you haven’t seen the film you’ll recognize the happy ending – basically the good guys win, the bad guys gets their just deserts, there’s a wedding and you finish with a song. That’s the age-old recipe for a comedy. And the bible is the archetypal comedy. If you want to read the ultimate comedy ending, read Revelation 19 when you get home. There you see Jesus Christ riding into town on a white horse – the Victor over sin, death and every evil. You see the bad guys, the forces of darkness, the devil and all who follow him cast into the pit. You see the ultimate wedding – the wedding to which all other weddings point: the joyful union between Jesus and His people. And you see singing – the Hallelujah chorus is taken straight out of Revelation 19. Hallelujah. In biblical language even the rocks will cry out and the trees of the field will clap their hands. The whole creation will be released into noisy, joyful praise. The plotline of all history according to the bible is a comedy. Not everyone will get it. Nonetheless the Christian story is a comedy. It’s called the Gospel which literally means GOOD NEWS. Christianity is the announcement of Good News – Jesus has triumphed, the bad guys lose, history is heading to praise and joyful relationship – Good News. Christianity is a comedy.

e.g. of Life of Brian – it topped channel 4’s poll of the hundred greatest comedy films.  And it’s very funny.  I’ve used clips from the first half of the film in sermons to illustrate many ridiculous truths about Christians.  The film does an excellent job of sending up religious people – not as good a job as Jesus does of sending up religious people.  But it’s a pretty good effort.  My problem is the ending – it’s actually not a comedy, it’s a tragedy.  The finale has its hero whistling a wry ditty on the cross.  “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.”  Now it’s a fine film.  A funny film.  But in the end it’s gallows humour.  In the end, it’s just a tragedy.  The problem with the Life of Brian is not that it is a comedy.  The problem is it’s not a comedy. Without the resurrection truth of Christianity, the Life of Brian is just one more tragedy sprinkled with gallows humour.  And that’s a pretty depressing prospect to be honest.

And Christian faith means hearing the Good News and getting it. Just like you get a joke, you need to get the Good News about Jesus. And faith is what happens when a person understands the Good News as Good News. They have a shocking shift in perceptions and they start to see Jesus in a different light, God in a different light, themselves in a different light, the world, the future, life and death in a different light. It’s a shocking shift.

And so, in the bible the call to become a Christian is the word “repent.” And literally the word repent means “change of mind”. It is this shocking shift that happens when you GET the Good News. And the bible says whenever that happens the angels in heaven rejoice. There’s laughter all round when people get the Good News. Christianity is comedic.

So the overall plotline of the bible is comedic. But what I want to do with our remaining time is show you how the bible tells this comedic story in a thoroughly comedic way.

Because some of you will be thinking – alright so laughter’s allowed at the end, with the happily ever after. But what about now in our broken world full of death and wickedness. Is comedy really a spiritual, godly thing now? Yes. Absolutely.

We’ll begin with the garden of Eden and the story of how all this death and wickedness came about. Christians call this event the Fall and it was the greatest Fall from grace there’s ever been. Humanity fell away from God and were cast out of His presence. It was a dreadful event, the worst and most serious in human history. And yet – it is described in richly comedic terms.

Remember comedy is serious – there’s no such thing as ‘only joking’ and ‘laughing matters’ are no less ‘serious matters’ for all that. But the biblical story of the Fall is comedic.

You have Adam and Eve – before they disobey the LORD they are naked and feel no shame. Harmony, bliss, openness, beauty, freedom, satisfaction, joy. And Satan slides up to Eve and says “Can you believe the LORD, all these trees and He’s forbidden you to eat from any of them!” And Eve says ‘No we can eat from any tree in the world – there’s only one tree that’s off limits.’ The devil says ‘What a kill-joy! Are you really going to let this Miser tell you what to do?’

We hear this temptation from this side of the Fall and so it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to us. But really that should seem like the most ridiculous suggestion ever put. Of course we should trust God to tell us what’s what. Of course we should let Him set the agenda. Of course we should believe His words – He’s the LORD. But we hear this temptation on this side of the Fall. And it’s a mark of how deeply the Fall has settled into all our hearts that we understand Adam and Eve’s sin. We commit it every day. It’s the cry of every sinful human heart. If I were to ask you “Who’s got the right to tell you what to do? Who’s got the right to tell you what’s what?” We naturally reply – No-one! No-one’s going to forbid me what I want – not even you LORD. It’s ridiculous, but it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do. And immediately upon believing a ridiculous truth, they become ridiculous people. As soon as they eat the forbidden fruit they become fearful and ashamed. And they sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. An hour ago they had walked around paradise like kings and queens, naked and loving it. Now – fig leaves, sewn together. How the mighty have fallen. But of course the fall of the mighty is rich ground for comedy. And so Genesis tells this tragic story in deeply comedic terms.

The next thing that happens, the LORD God Himself comes to walk with His favourite couple in the cool of the day. And the bible says “They hid from the LORD God among the trees.” They HID from the LORD God, behind some trees. It’s tragic, but you can laugh, because comedy is also serious. And the LORD confronts Adam. Adam says “This woman you put here made me do it.” This is brilliant comedy. Adam manages to blame both the LORD and the woman in a single sentence and we say “How ridiculous” and “How typical”. And that’s great comedy. Makes you laugh, makes you think. We laugh at him but we also see ourselves in him. Same with Eve. She gives the age old excuse “The devil made me do it.” Again – ridiculous and typical. So Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent and then the serpent doesn’t have a leg to stand on. (boom, boom).

But here is the worst event in human history and the bible portrays it in thoroughly comedic terms. Comedy is serious. And Christianity is comedic. Because when people become ridiculous it is right to ridicule them.

Which is what the bible does from cover to cover. The bible takes the Fall seriously – which means it sees humanity as the ridiculous bundle of contradictions that we are. We have rejected the LORD who loves us. We’re like a drowning cat clawing and scratching its Owner who’s only trying to rescue it. We’ve been estranged from the LORD our Maker and all our efforts to get back to paradise are laughable…

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More here and here..

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I’m giving an evangelistic talk on the above subject on Thursday.  I have way too much material and I’m toying with tackling it from a totally different angle – but, well.  Here’s some stuff that I have at the moment and maybe you can help me.  I’ll lay out what I’ve got in installments and you can tell me what needs to stay on the cutting room floor.  Any suggestions gratefully received…

Analysing comedy is a bit like dissecting a dolphin. Just leave the dolphin alone.  We much prefered just watching the dolphin frolick around.  The guy who steps forward with a scalpel saying “Let’s see how it works!” – that guy’s sick.  SICK.

Well I’m the sick guy this afternoon.  This is not about being funny, it’s about analysing funny – and the saying “we kill to dissect” is never so true as with comedy.  Hope you’re not too disappointed.

But what I hope to do this lunchtime is to do what comedy itself does. This talk will be disappointingly unfunny, but I hope my talk does what comedy does. And what does comedy do?

It makes a shocking shift in perception. That’s what comedy is – a shocking shift. It shifts our perceptions in a surprising or pointed way.

Now the Joke Proper gives us a short, sharp, shocking shift – that’s what puts the punch in a punchline. But in general comedy creates a shocking shift in perception. It re-presents to us familiar people or situations in a subversive, surprising way.

Take for instance this cartoon mocking a well known Christian platitude:

god-loves-you1
Now there are several ways you could debunk this Christian platitude. You could preach a series of serrmons about how God might actually lead you into terrible suffering and it wouldn’t disprove His love. You could write a whole history of martyrdom to challenge the glibness of such bumper-sticker Christianity. Next time you hear the saying you could yell back: “Try telling that to the martyrs, man!”

None of those options would be comedy. And to be honest – none of them would be as effective as this simple cartoon. And this is how comedy works. It provides a shocking shift in perceptions. And in this succinct form it is a short, sharp shocking shift.

Or think again about a recent example of comedy. Imagine that a Danish scholar had written a 15 000 word paper linking the life and teaching of Mohammed to modern terrorism. Would we have heard of this paper? Would the world have erupted around such an academic proposal? No.

But get a Danish cartoonist to draw Mohammed’s turban as a bomb and then the world erupts. It is a shocking shift of perception to lay those ideas side by side and invite comparison. It’s how comedy works – and it has the power to ignite fear and protest as well as debate and serious thought.

Which means comedy is a serious business. Don’t ever think of comedy as simply ‘making light’ of the world. 

I mean, think about it.  Has anyone’s ever said to you these words: “Come on! I was only joking!”

If someone’s said that to you I’ll guarantee you had to suppress the urge to stab them in the throat with a biro. Because we all know that there’s no such thing as “only joking”. When we joke we are using words at their sharpest. And contrary to the popular saying: sticks and stones may break our bones, but words go even deeper. Which makes comedy a very serious business. It is using words at their sharpest.

Now a sharp knife can be used for good or ill. It can cut you a slice of cake – good. It can stab you through the heart – not so good.  The knife itself is not good or bad. But the knife can be used for good or bad. Same with comedy. Comedy itself is a powerful tool. It is using words at their sharpest. But that tool can be used for tremendous good or tremendous evil.

A lot of people have been hurt by sharp words in the past and therefore write off comedy. I think that’s a shame. There is a legitimate, joyful and serious use for comedy. Because sometimes words need to cut. Sometimes issues need to be dissected. Sometimes bubbles need to be burst. Sometimes people and institutions need to be cut down to size. Sometimes pride needs to be pricked. Sometimes side issues need to be cut through and the heart of the issue exposed. And comedy is uniquely placed to do that job.

And this is what I mean by saying I want this talk to do what comedy does – comedy shifts our perceptions. And I want to shift our perceptions not only about comedy itself but about Christianity. And here’s the shift in perception: Generally we take comedy lightly and think of Christianity as serious, heavy, dull. I hope to show that:

Comedy is serious.  And Christianity is comedic.

 Notes continued here, here and here..

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On Thursday I’m going to speak about Comedy and Christianity (see here and here).

The Screwtape Letters is itself a wonderful argument for the positive Christian use of comedy.  In fact I once heard John Cleese read the book on tape – hilarity itself! 

Lewis’ book consists of the letters of Screwtape, a senior demon, to his nephew Wormwood.  It’s advice on how to really capture a soul for evil. 

Here is letter 12 on humour.  (NB: of course for Screwtape, “our Father” is the devil.  “The Enemy” is God).

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
Everything is clearly going very well. am specially glad to hear that the two new friends have now made him acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father’s house. You speak of their being great laughers. I trust this does not mean that you are under the impression that laughter as such is always in our favour. The point is worth some attention.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven-a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.

Fun is closely related to Joy-a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.

The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. I am not thinking primarily of indecent or bawdy humour, which, though much relied upon by second-rate tempters, is often disappointing in its results. The truth is that humans are pretty clearly divided on this matter into two classes. There are some to whom “no passion is as serious as lust” and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for talking about sex. If your man is of the first type, bawdy humour will not help you-I shall never forget the hours which I wasted (hours to me of unbearable tedium) with one of my early patients in bars and smoking-rooms before I learned this rule. Find out which group the patient belongs to-and see that he does not find out.

The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their “sense of humour” so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is “mean”; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer “mean” but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful-unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as “Puritanical” or as betraying a “lack of humour”.

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

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Thanksgiving and prayer called for.  Wise as snakes, innocent as doves.

H/T Paul Blackham

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Chasing after the wind

Matthew Syed in the Times today.  He writes about cyclist and Olympic Gold medalist Victoria Pendleton.  She has spoken of the tremendous let-down that follows even world-beating success.

…The Great Britain cycling team have always been up front about their raison d’être: winning Olympic gold is everything, all else is detail.

Pendleton worked harder than ever in 2008, rising early to do the lung-busting cardio work, pumping weights, making sacrifices in her personal and family life, you name it. Her entire being was directed at a few minutes of pedalling around an indoor track in China. That was her destiny and her ambition, her be-all and end-all. That is what it is like — that is what it has to be like — if you are serious about becoming the best. Then, in Beijing, in the theatre of dreams, calamity struck.

She won.

Consider her words, as honest as they are perplexed, just a few months after achieving her lifetime ambition. “You have all this build-up for one day, and when it’s over, it’s: ‘Oh, is that it?’ ” she said. “People think it’s hard when you lose. But it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.”

Steve Peters, the cycling team’s psychiatrist, has said that many other Olympic champions — as well as some among the support teams — have also struggled with depression since Beijing. “This is true not just in cycling but across the sports I’ve worked with,” he said. “A number of people I’ve been in touch with following the Olympics, people who’d succeeded, said the same. They felt quite depressed, almost like a sense of loss.”

Syed’s analysis of this common phenomenon?

…We should remember that the human brain is the product of millions of years of natural selection. So-called negative emotions must be seen in this context. They have evolved to help us to deal with specific kinds of opportunities and threats. Anxiety facilitates escape from dangerous situations and helps us to avoid them in the future. Mild depression enables us to disengage from unattainable goals. Humiliation is triggered when we are faced with the threat of losing social status.

Seen in this light, anticlimax makes perfect evolutionary sense. It is the emotional lull that lays the psychological foundations for the next tilt at gold; the melancholy that provides the creative impetus for the next great adventure…

…That is why Pendleton will rediscover her manic hunger; that is what humans do. She will come to forget — indeed, she will have to forget — that winning gold in 2012 will be no less hollow than winning in Beijing. She will forget that sporting fulfilment is elusive, just as the rest of us have forgotten that material fulfilment and status fulfilment are elusive.

We strive for these things even though we know, deep down, that they are trivial. This is the paradox upon which human society — and not just capitalism or the Olympic Games — depends. It is the necessary amnesia.

Or as the teacher said:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” 3 What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. 12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 15 What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.  (Ecclesiastes 1:2-18)

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