Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Romance of God

Tomorrow I begin work on the final chapter of my second draft. It's fair to say, I'm excited. 
           Over the last seven years of sculpting, studying and scheming, 
           I've kept much of what I've written close to my chest. 
           But here, right now, I want to give you a sneak preview of the finale. 
           Because I just cannot keep it in.

All of the italicised words presented below have been lifted directly from the Bible. 
They are from the ancient Hebrew erotic love poetry known today as Song of Songs: 

You are so handsome, my lover (1:16)
Your mouth is sweet to kiss,
I desire you so very much.
You are my lover and my friend (5:16).
I belong to you my lover
And my lover belongs to me (6:3).
I belong to my lover
And he desires only me (7:10).’  

'My love, you are full of delights (7:6),
My bride, you have thrilled my heart (4:9).
My bride, your lips drip honey (4:11),
How beautiful you are, my darling! 
Oh, you are beautiful!  
Your eyes behind your veil are like doves (4:1). 
My darling, everything about you is beautiful, 
there is nothing wrong with you (4:7).’      


Because it all finishes with a wedding.
It all finishes with the romance of God.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hurts Like Heaven

New Coldplay albums are events in my life.
I await their release with the anticipation of a Cup Final. 
I relish those first plays, over and over again, absorbing myself in the world that Coldplay has created.  
Every time I wonder, will this album connect with me, move me, stir me, like the last?

The question of whether Coldplay are depressing or uplifting seems to divide popular opinion. At first glance, the first single off Mylo Xyloto couldn't have a more depressing title. And yet 'Every Teardrop is a Waterfall' is a fun, upbeat, up-tempo track, with lyrics which journey through different kinds of joy. We begin with a joy where you 'turn the music up', 'shut the world outside' and 'feel your heart start beating to your favourite song.' It's an escapist kind of joy, dancing away 'until Monday morning feels another life'.
But then Monday morning kicks in: 
'Maybe I'm in the black,
Maybe I'm on my knees,
Maybe I'm in the gap between the two trapezes,
But my heart is beating and my pulses start
Cathedrals in my heart.'
Now Coldplay are describing a joy that is no longer escapist, but is rooted within, or comes out of, or is in spite of the realities of life.
'Every siren is a symphony'.
Are Coldplay really suggesting that joy and suffering are interlinked? 
'From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song'. 
Can joy come out of suffering?

Ideas of joy and suffering are fused together in the title of Mylo Xyloto's opening song, 'Hurts Like Heaven'.
The phrase jolts us, doesn't it? Stops us in our tracks. 
I mean, hurts like heaven?!? What does it mean?
Is it simply ridiculous, contradictory - an impossibility?
Or is it profound, deep - maybe even true? 
Is it simply harmless, meaningless - just a nice piece of alliteration?
Or is it false, heretical - maybe even blasphemous?

Does heaven hurt?
Is it possible to hurt like heaven? 

In the early stages of the Biblical narrative a scene is described where the earth was so filled with suffering, injustice and wickedness, God 'was grieved' and 'his heart was filled with pain' (Gen 6:6). Then as the story continues, particularly throughout the prophets, a picture is painted of a God whose heart breaks at the continuing bloodshed, corruption and oppression rife throughout human society.
God had a desire - God has a desire - for so so so so so much more than this.  

When we see scenes of great suffering and injustice in the world today, when the images connect with us, stir us, move us, we are sharing in the heartbreak of the Creator. To put it another way, when we open our eyes to see the world as God sees it, it hurts.
Or in the words of Coldplay, 'When you use your heart as a weapon it hurts like heaven.' 

Because, like the girl in Mylo Xyloto's second single, God is dreaming of 'para-para-paradise.' 
A paradise where there are no more tears...
no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev. 21:4).
A paradise where joy has triumphed over suffering.
But until that day comes...
Every teardrop will continue to fall like a waterfall.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Erasing Hell: my review

Love Wins and Erasing Hell are two books which should be read together. If you've read one, read the other.
My soundbite analysis is that I agree and disagree with parts of both.
Now here are some thoughts......

A few months ago Rob Bell kicked up a storm. Bell wrote for people like me who really struggle to accept a concept of hell where people are tortured in an everlasting conscious punishment.

Bell asked questions that people were just too scared to ask.
He explored alternative options, alternative possible beliefs.
But he formed no conclusions.
He deliberately left things hanging.
It was refreshing. But very frustrating.

Now, if Bell kicked up a cloud of dust and left the debris hanging, Francis Chan tries to reach up into the mess and pull down some clarity. He writes for Bell’s doubting audience but does so with a greater scholarly emphasis – he looks at passages in greater depth, in a more reliable style, and attempts to grapple with different points of view.

Chan describes how Jesus spoke about hell as a place of judgment after death and used imagery of fire - an everlasting fire. But in all but one example it is the fire that is everlasting, not the punishment. In all but one example, it is possible to take the view that people die in the fire; hell is a place where people die, not a place where people suffer for eternity.

According to Chan (pg 82) the only place where Jesus talks about an ‘everlasting punishment’ is Matthew 25:46 - those who do not feed the hungry and thirsty, in this life, on this earth (see v.35-44), ‘will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.’ There is then a debate about whether this really means what we think it means.

I think that Chan shows that the issue of hell is just as complicated as Rob Bell described. Chan concludes, ‘The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with absolute certainty.’ (pg. 86)

Then to my astonishment, much of the rest of the book appears to assume that hell is an everlasting conscious punishment. Chan relates to my doubts, struggles and bewilderment – he acknowledges that it’s difficult to believe in a God who could punish people forever – and yet he ultimately leads his readers in a prayer of repentance, repenting our arrogance for trying ‘to make God fit my standards of justice and goodness and love.’ (pg 139) The conclusion is to ‘submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine.’ (pg 141) ‘Though God acts in ways that seem unloving by our standards, they are not unloving by his standards.’ (pg 161)

This conclusion leaves me just as frustrated as Rob Bell’s book did.
We seem to have gone back to square one.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Omni God

Ask the average person what God is like (if God exists) and if they remember their RE lessons correctly they'll start saying words beginning with omni.
Throughout my childhood I went to a church most weeks but I only ever remember learning these words at secondary school.
On a good day I remember what the words mean:
I just looked the words up on Wikipedia to check I'm right.
Three theological points for me.

The vast majority of Christians for hundreds - thousands - of years have affirmed that these 'omni' words are true of God. Throughout the centuries the words have appeared in numerous foundational 'creeds' - formal lists of agreed beliefs.

I wouldn't dare disagree with the 'omni's. But I want to suggest that there is a slight problem with these words. There is a problem when the 'omni's become our only starting point for thinking about God.
Starting with 'omni's tends to turn God into an abstract philosophical concept.
Something. Somewhere. Out there. Distant. Disconnected.
God becomes an exercise in imagination.
I mean, can you picture a super ultimate being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all present? Can you begin to wrap your mind around it?
For many, this kind-of ultimate super-being is just too good to be true.
We can't picture it.
Therefore, it can't be right.
Faith in this God can appear like people have just switched their brain off, closed their eyes and are just blindly hoping that it's true.

What's more, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present... this is a pretty scary, intimidating, daunting, overwhelming place to start when thinking about God.
I can fear this God.
But I struggle to relate to this God.
I struggle to fall in love with this God.

You might be surprised to hear that omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent are not words found in the Bible.
There are no verses which say,
'God is all-powerful'
or 'God is all-knowing'
or 'God is all-present.'
That's not to say that God isn't all these things. It's just that these concepts have come from people looking at the evidence in the Bible, weighing it all up and then forming conclusions.
They're conclusions, not starting points.

What the Bible does proclaim as an explicit statement, is that...
'God is love.'

And 'Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.'

Now there's a great starting point.
I can start to wrap my mind around this.
I can relate to this.
I can respect and admire and fall in love with a God like this.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Love Wins: my review

Having now read through 'Love Wins' four times from cover to cover, I finally feel equipped to offer a few thoughts on it. So here is my review of 'a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived.'

Firstly, it strikes me that many people are reading 'Love Wins' for the purpose of discovering what Rob Bell believes. They need to categorise him. Does he fit? Does he support or oppose them? Should he be accepted? Or discarded?

The trouble with that approach is that 'Love Wins' is a very tricky book to box.
Simply because the book is an exploration of possibilities.

Does Rob Bell think that every person will EVENTUALLY end up choosing paradise?
He raises it, explores it and affirms it as a POSSIBILITY.
Does Rob Bell think that some people will suffer apart from this paradise?
He raises it, explores it and affirms it as a POSSIBILITY.

In his own words,
'Will everybody be saved,
or will some perish from God forever because of their choices?
Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space from the freedom that love requires.'
(pg. 115)

'Love Wins' is to be recommended for this very reason: it opens you up to the possibilities. It does not tell you what to believe but instead helps you identify what views you currently hold, and then assists you in weighing up whether these views needs altering. Rob writes in the preface, 'If this book does nothing more than open you up to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multi-voiced complexity - well, I'd be thrilled.' (pg xi)

What Rob Bell does get across, however,
with absolute certainty,
is that views on life after death
should not be held with absolute certainty.
Many, many people in our culture baulk at the very mention of Christianity because the Christian voice that they have heard most of all, spoken with greatest volume, is a negative, scathing, unswerving, judgemental voice. It's a voice unwilling to enter into debate because you are wrong and they are right. It's black and white.

I'm sure there are other fallibilities of the book, but this, for me, is the utmost reason why criticism of the book can be expected: it does attempt to shake walls that do not want to be shaken.

What I think Rob Bell successfully shows in 'Love Wins' is that the topic of life after death is anything but black and white. It is a topic which, for obvious reasons, is rife with speculation and uncertainty.
And we should handle it as such.
But that does not mean that we should ignore the topic.
Or treat it as unimportant.
It is extremely important.
The possibilities need to be explored and considered by all.
Because, to quote Rob, 'how we think about heaven directly affects what we do with our days and energies now.' (pg 44) In other words, our beliefs, hopes, dreams and expectations for the future will all shape our approach to the present.

Because beyond all the questions, tensions and speculations, 'Love Wins' does offer a clear and concrete rallying cry. 'Love Wins' is a call for all of us to love this world more.
It explains why we should be living lives which bring heaven to earth. Here. Now.
Lives which confront hell. Here. Now.
Lives which spread heaven. Here. Now.
All dancing across the earth.

And any book that does that, in my opinion, should be commended.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Favourite Five Blogs of 2010

Happy New Year everyone! To celebrate I've scrolled through the blogs that I wrote in 2010, picked out my favourite five, and have wrapped them all up into one specially packaged box-set, for your ease and enjoyment.

January 2010 - Maybe Robbie Williams Was Right
February 2010 - The More we Learn, the Greater the Mystery
June 2010 - The Only Revolutions
November 2010 - The Question of Mumford and the Lost Sons
December 2010 - The Theology of Washing Up

Every DVD box-set comes with extras ... so here's my bonus material: two videos made from the audio of two talks that I gave during 2010.

February 2010: 'Pete's Valentine's Sermon' (23 minutes)
October 2010: 'The Bible in Miniature: A Tale of Two Trees' (4 minutes)

Hmmm, I wonder what my 2011 compilation boxset will look like? It's time to get writing......