A Glimpse of Cross Vision

I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gregboydnew/

It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.

The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words

On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ.  The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.

In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.

In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.

After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.

And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?

There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.

But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.

Advertisements

Darkness and Light

Yesterday was my birthday. Every four years I receive an early birthday present in the form of the inauguration of a president of the USA. Sometimes this is an encouraging present, sometimes – like this year – not so much.

I pray for President Trump. I pray for peace in his heart that will translate into a peacemaking approach to his policies at home and abroad. What I write now is based on the evidence of his words and actions up to now.

As I listened to Trump’s inauguration speech I was disturbed by what I heard. There were a handful of sentences that sounded like nod towards an inclusive society, but mostly it was a continuation of his consistent attitude over the last year, and apparently over his whole lifetime.

This was the point where his speech turned from objectionable to painful:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

This is the same attitude we see gaining traction all over the world these days – isolationism, protectionism and nationalism based on ignorance and fear. A nation is a collection of people who have been born or raised in an arbitrary area of land, and no such collection of people is any better or worse than another. Throughout history the wealth of nations has increased through cooperation and friendship, and the poor have been raised up through the generosity and compassion of the rich. These are the mechanisms by which societies advance and they are driven by the engine of love. When people turn their backs on their neighbours, either at home or abroad, everybody loses.

I want God to bless America. And I want Him to bless the United Kingdom. But I also want Him to bless Russia, and China and North Korea, and every other nation on Earth. And this is not a fantasy. The receipt of God’s blessings is not a zero-sum game.

We are the light of the world, we are the salt of the earth. Let us continue to shine the light of truth and love on all of our neighbours in every corner of the world. No matter how dark the world may become, the darkness will never overcome the light.

A Reflection On Brexit

I understand the reasons why the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Some of those reasons I can sympathise with, and others I simply can’t.

But what’s done is done. And what’s important now is that everyone in the country is gracious to one another, whether in victory or defeat. And in the longer term we have to be united in our efforts to support and lift the disenfranchised, the poor and the weak among us. And more than that we must be a light to the world, generous to those beyond our shores who don’t enjoy democracy, those who don’t live in peace, those who don’t experience freedom, those who can’t even turn to a food bank for their daily bread.

Many people argued that the referendum was about control, but no matter who won, God was always going to be in control. Both sides of the referendum campaign focused on fear, many people on both sides made their decisions through fear, and now the outcome is spreading fear in certain parts of the country and the world.

But while I’m saddened by the result, I refuse to fear the future. My faith is not in politicians or economists. My faith is not in the British electorate, whether or not they agree with me. My faith is not in the UK or the EU, but in Christ alone.

Choose Love

Would it make any sense for me to command you to do something that is out of your control? What if I commanded you to be pulled to the earth by gravity? What if I commanded you to breathe? What if I commanded you to stop breathing? That’s something you could manage for a short while, but your body would soon protest and override your efforts.

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

Jesus is commanding His disciples – including us – to love one another. He knows that this is a choice we have to make. Sometimes, when you think about some of your fellow Christians, it’s a difficult decision. When we start looking at people the way God does, it becomes easier.

He made that statement near the end of his life. Earlier He made an even more challenging one.

‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:43-45)

It’s a very basic fact that everything we do that counts for anything is down to our choices. Even in circumstances that are beyond our control we choose how to respond.

However much anger we feel about what someone has done to another human being – or to ourselves – we can choose to respond with love. Let the legal system do its part in determining guilt and punishment. Our response is above the law.

However helpless we feel about the state of the world and the desperate plight that people find themselves in, we can choose to respond with love. Insignificant as it may seem in our own eyes or the eyes of the world, our response is hugely significant in the eyes of God.

So love is beyond feelings, and not to be confused or affected by them. This is true in marriage too. Feelings and physical attraction can be strong, and an emotional bond feels powerful, but feelings can be fickle and emotions can turn like the wind. We all hope that our feelings will at least remain strong, and perhaps grow even stronger over the course of a marriage. But our feelings are out of our control. That includes our feelings for others as well as our spouse. This is why Paul commands:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

Love is a choice that in marriage becomes a commitment. It is deeper and more satisfying than any emotion, and as much as warm emotions can sweeten the relationship, love does not depend on them.

I am divorced. I married based solely on feelings, and negative self-centered feelings at that. I didn’t know Christ at that time, and I didn’t know love. I’ve learned a lot since then, and I hope that one day I will be able to make that choice and commitment to someone capable of making the same commitment to me. I thank God for teaching me, through Jesus Christ, what it means to choose love.

Reflections on Mercy

I’ve been thinking about mercy. It’s a beautiful thing to consider, and God’s mercy is described throughout the Bible, sometimes translated as love, compassion, or pity. It is usually synonymous with forgiveness. Another beautiful word.

Grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Grace is when we receive something good that we don’t deserve. Mercy is when we are released from a bad consequence that we do deserve.

As I was thinking, I recalled that mercy is the theme of a famous Shakespeare speech, so I investigated. The play is “The Merchant of Venice”. The merchant’s name is Antonio and he guarantees a loan agreement that his friend makes with a Jewish moneylender called Shylock. A contract is drawn up stating that if the loan is not repaid on time Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. After some merchant ships are lost at sea the loan defaults, and Shylock takes Antonio to court to seek justice. Portia, a wealthy heiress who has promised to marry Antonio’s friend, disguises herself as a lawyer and makes this plea to Shylock:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Some critics have suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is anti-semitic. There are arguments for and against this view, but I don’t want to get into that debate. Instead I think it’s interesting to compare the ‘Old Testament’ ideas of law and justice as demonstrated by Shylock, with the ‘New Testament’ focus on grace and mercy pleaded by Portia.

You can see several scriptural references in this speech:

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“It is an attribute to God himself.”

Daniel 9:9 (NIV)

The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.

“We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.”

Matthew 6:12 (NIV)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

King David referred often to God’s mercy in his psalms, for a typical example let’s look at Psalm 6.

Psalm 6 (NIV)

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

I have a problem with some psalms. I find that often they will be 90% spot on with insight into my own hopes, fears, feelings and prayers, and then David will throw in a couple of lines asking for, or promising, revenge and dire consequences for his enemies. I’m uncomfortable with those lines because they don’t seem to line up with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies. I’m sure that all of us have harboured some small yearning for revenge – or justice – at times. I just don’t like to see it expressed so bluntly in the Bible – and by a man after God’s own heart.

But when I look at scripture in totality, it seems clear to me that God wants to see forgiveness in our hearts, not vengeance. Mercy is one of those gifts that is not only lavished on us from above, but is expected from us in our relationships.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But should we expect mercy with ‘no strings attached?’ Is that what God promises us? No.

Proverbs 28:13 (NIV)

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The one who confesses and renounces their sins will find mercy. A principle also found in first John:

1 John 1:9 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Yet we know, even on a human level, it is possible to forgive someone who hasn’t confessed or repented. We’ve all done it – even non-believers. So is that true forgiveness? Is that real mercy? Or are we deluding ourselves, clothing ourselves in self-righteousness?

Thinking again about The Merchant of Venice, even after Portia pleads for mercy Shylock insists on receiving his justice, and the law cannot deny him. However, Portia then insists that Shylock sticks rigidly to the letter of his contract. He must take flesh, and not blood – if a drop of Christian blood is spilled then all of his goods will be forfeit under the law of Venice. He cannot take any more or less than one pound, or the same penalty will be due. When Shylock finally gives up his claim he is charged with threatening to kill a citizen of Venice and his sentence is death. His life is spared by the Duke, in his mercy.

We can see the parallels in our own lives, as God’s law shows us the depth of our own sin, and justice would demand a death sentence. Yet our lives our spared by the Lord, in His mercy, through the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:3-7 (NIV)

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

James 2:8-13 (NIV)

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

So why does He do it? Why does God show us such undeserved mercy? Because He said He would. Because He loves us. Because much of the time we know not what we do. And because He is giving us a reason to show the same mercy to others.

1 Timothy 1:12-16 (NIV)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

Amen.

Imagining John Lennon as a Christian

I don’t know everything he said, and of course even less so everything he thought, or how his views and beliefs changed throughout his life, but I think it’s reasonable to say, from my limited knowledge, that John Lennon didn’t consider himself a Christian. he gave quite a strong hint in 1966 when he said:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and i will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.

But I was thinking about “Imagine” yesterday, and the idea came to me… I wonder whether there would be much negative reaction if one of today’s popular Christian songwriters were to pen these words:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

I’ll grant you that there probably isn’t enough direct reference to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit in there, but look at the words. I’ve omitted the first verse for obvious reasons, but we’ll return to that later. In the lyric above I can see echoes of so much of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry.

Imagine there’s no countries… I think of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”

Nothing to kill or die for… in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus says

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.

Also consider the description of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21:4

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

And no religion too… no religion! Yes, read what Jesus had to say about religion, the soulless hypocritical show of tradition and law; the total opposite of the relationship with God, our Father, that Christ exemplifies. You can find his statement on the subject in Matthew 23:1-36. He doesn’t sit on the fence.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Imagine no possessions… no need for greed or hunger… in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus exhorts us not to worry about such things as clothes and food, which we will be provided with if we first seek God. This is straight after He warns us not to serve mammon – money. Also look at His instructions when sending out the apostles to preach the gospel and heal the sick, the simple lifestyle described through Matthew 10:9-10.

I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one… A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world… it reminds me of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-23:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

I also think of Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, which starts:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

It seems that the kind of world John Lennon is imagining looks very similar to the one that Jesus pointed to, and that Christians are praying for and working towards.

So what does he have against Christianity? Why is he so convinced that it will go? Maybe the answer is in that first verse, the one I can’t imagine Matt Redman writing…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Lennon is looking for a world where everyone lives for today. In itself I don’t see that as an un-Christian way of living. Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, not to store up treasures on earth. The difference is that Christ tells us to store up treasures in heaven. But Lennon doesn’t want heaven or hell, because (in my opinion) he doesn’t want to face the consequences of those places being real. It’s too difficult to live by the all the rules that have been written down in scripture, and if the consequence of breaking those laws is eternal damnation, well I can understand why that would worry him.

This world view seems to be laid bare in his song “God” in which he finally claims “I just believe in me.” Self-reliance and self-determination are sweet incentives to draw you into atheism, but they are delusions, and truth is rather that “No man is an island entire of itself.”

The fact is that it is too difficult to live by God’s laws, and be “righteous” by ourselves. We can all look at our lives and see so many reasons why we don’t deserve to go to heaven. And that’s because we simply don’t. We’ve disobeyed the eternal, omnipotent ruler of the universe so many times and that makes us deserving of eternal punishment.

But God loves us and understands our weakness, our imperfection, our inability to live up to His standard. So He’s given us an escape route, another chance, he offers us salvation in the form of Jesus Christ, sent not only to show us the perfect example of how to live, but in His death to take the punishment that would otherwise be ours. Accept Jesus as your Lord, and your Saviour, and you are clothed in His righteousness, accepted by God.

You don’t have to imagine no heaven and no hell. You can live for today without fear of tomorrow. You can live in peace, in a brotherhood of man, eliminating greed and hunger. You can do it without nationalism or xenophobia, and without religion. All you need is love – God is love. (1 John 4:16)

A Final Word…

While I was researching the notion that “Imagine” is an atheist anthem for the purpose of this blog post, I came across the following article which runs along very similar lines to my own, but with (mostly) different scriptural references. You might be interested to read the opinion of a Professor of Theology and Public Issues and compare it to mine – I’m never likely to be a professor of anything!

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/141124/faith-and-reason-imagine-really-atheist