Strong, yet weak

May 29, 2020

A couple of months ago, I was planning to start a new series on this blog but since then life has become dominated by coronavirus. We have largely been confined to our house for most of this time. Other parts of life have also faced major disruption – for example our planned Easter holiday was cancelled and we were left to enjoy the beautiful weather in the back garden!

Yet we are very fortunate. I am still able to work full time, we haven’t suffered the financial hardship that many have, and we have stayed healthy. Plenty of people have had a much harder time, while others put their health on the line as they work in the health service or other front line roles.

It seemed strange therefore to not reflect on the current situation with most things locked down and our lives so changed.

There are many things which could be said, but one thing that has struck me is how this crisis has demonstrated both the impressive and good – as well as the disheartening and bad in people. This is nothing new but is probably more visible in the challenging times.

The amazing things that people have and are achieving are easy to spot. Whereas only a decade or two ago we had no choice but to go out to work – so a requirement to socially isolate would have caused the economy to come to a stand still – now many of us can work from home, with good access to online work facilities, and the world’s store of knowledge only a quick search away. Our understanding of the natural world also continues to grow such that scientists around the world can realistically talk of a hope to find and produce a vaccine for this disease within the next year. Kindness and generosity also abounds – with many ordinary people willing to face a higher risk of infection to serve and help others, stories of generous gifts made to health workers, and many examples of everyday offers of help to the vulnerable and those in need.

Yet despite all our scientific and technological prowess, the reality is that the world has been brought to a standstill by a small piece of biological material, a fraction of the size of a cell. It is a reminder that while we have tremendous knowledge and the ability to manipulate matter at both small and large scales, we still often find ourselves powerless against the natural world. Our tendency to often not do the right thing is also easy to see. The news abounds with examples of high profile figures and government officials who have demonstrated that they think they are above following the lockdown rules. A walk around the streets also highlights many ‘ordinary’ people who are not socially distancing – placing their personal desires above maintaining low infection levels and keeping others safe. And there are many examples of those who exploit this health tragedy for their own financial gain.

As well as the strength and brilliance of people, we see their weakness.

The Bible also points out these two sides to human kind. It acknowledges that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139 NIV). Multiple times we are described as made in the image or likeness of God (Genesis 1, 5, James 3 and elsewhere) bestowing a very high view of our nature and value. Yet we fail to live up to who we have been made – we have all ‘fallen short’ (Romans 3) and this failing permeates to the very heart of each of us for ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). This is often exacerbated by our own failure to recognise our limitations – ‘if you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now that your claim your can see, your guilt remains’ (John 9:42 NIV).

It’s important to recognise and keep in tension both of these parallel truths about ourselves (and recognise that they are true for each individual as well as mankind as a whole). When we tend to focus on one and not the other – as we often do! – problems arise. So, for example, some Christians will emphasise our sinfulness, and that even our best actions may be tainted with bad motivation. This may be true but if we say this alone then it doesn’t ring true to many as they receive sacrificial love, deep kindness and generosity from their friends and relatives. But if we only see the good in people and not the bad, we can end up with a foolish optimism and a belief in the upward progress of society. We think that we will be able to sort out everything our ourselves and will most likely end up disappointed and disillusioned. We fail to recognise that we need a saviour.

As C S Lewis put it,

‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve’ said Aslan, ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth’

A ‘failing’ country?

October 24, 2019

My country is in a mess. The people are pretty much divided down the middle (although most are getting increasingly fed up with the cause of the division and want it to just be sorted). The government is largely powerless, unable to enact much of what it wants to do, and the political opposition seem almost as divided amongst themselves. If the political system were a school I’m sure it would be pronounced as failing and put into special measures! Who knows what is going to happen over the next few days and weeks.

I am of course mostly talking about the division caused by Brexit. I was (and probably still am) personally in favour of the UK staying in the European Union, but am disappointed with both sides of the argument for the way the debate and ongoing approaches to resolving the ‘issue’ of Brexit have and are being conducted. Both sides have become increasingly polarised, and seem focused on deciding the best strategies to achieve their preferred outcome (or at least as close to it as they can get). Many on both sides are truly passionate about their cause, honestly believing, it seems, that what they advocate is much the best for the country and that the alternative would be a disaster.

But the end result of all this conviction and determination to bring about what they believe in, is a divided and incapacitated country where other important issues get left by the way side. Many politicians seem to not realise that if they get their way, be it a relatively ‘hard’ or even no deal Brexit, or a cancellation of Brexit altogether, this will leave a sizable chunk of the population on the other side of the argument heartily disillusioned and angry at what has been brought about. Instead the country needs a reconciliation between the two sides, seeking to understand and accommodate the concerns of those with another point of view, working together to achieve a compromise which might not be anyone’s preference but at least is something all can live with.

The thing is, that while there are some issues which are too important to compromise on, there are also many issues where maintaining relationships and keeping a concern for other points of view are more important than winning the argument or getting your own way. Few would argue with this, and we could readily identify some matters which we can all agree fall into either the no compromise, or happy to compromise categories. But many issues are less clear, and while less important will nevertheless stir up a sizable minority who see it as a ‘no compromise’ matter, maintaining the fight to the bitter end to the detriment of all. Brexit seems to be one of these.

So how can we decide when to focus on the relationship and compromise for the sake of it, and when it’s imperative that we stand up for what we believe, no matter what? I believe this is something best not left for us to decide ourselves (as we will each come to a different conclusion). It’s better to look outside ourselves to one who is much wiser, to the God who doesn’t stay silent about masters of justice and righteousness but at the same time is in the business of reconciliation!

For God … through Christ … reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. (Colossians 1:20)

Teddy art

January 27, 2019

My son has a reasonable sized collection of small teddies that generally live on the end of his bed. When making his bed in the morning we have got tired of just putting them in a line, and have started arranging them more interestingly – maybe playing a five a side football game, doing some acrobatics, or forming the numbers of that day’s date.

My creative talents are not really in the visual arts, so the arrangements I have made are not full of aesthetic beauty. However when I search for ‘Teddy art’ on Google I only find a selection of drawings and paintings of teddies, and not any artistic arrangements of the teddies themselves. We are surely not the first people to try this with soft toys, and so there must be some more impressive artistic Teddy photos out there. Can anyone point me to some?

Good news … (what is it?)

December 26, 2018

Most days, I get my main news update listening to radio 4’s PM in the car while traveling back from work. Much better, more varied and balanced than some of the other negative news coverage elsewhere that seems to be focused on bringing out disagreement – in my opinion. The main presenter has recently changed to Evan Davis, and on one of his earliest programmes there was a spot looking particularly at “good news” stories, often ignored or forgotten by most news programmes.

But what constitutes Good News? The answer will often depend on your point of view. In the current discord over Brexit the suggestion of a new referendum might be seen as good news by half the population, and a seriously bad idea by the other half. And a no deal scenario would be both welcomed and deplored by different groups.

Christmas is also a time of good news. The angel bought a message to the shepherds in a field near Bethlehem saying

I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.

(Luke 2:10, NLT)

But what is the good news of Christmas? Again you will probably get different answers, depending on who you ask.

The obvious place to start in looking for an answer would be what the angel goes on to say, describing Jesus as “the saviour”. In a similar vane, Simeon a few verses later holds the young Jesus in his arms and praises God saying “I have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all people.” In Matthew’s account we see this explained a bit more when the angel appears to Joseph and says “you are to name him Jesus for he will save people from their sins.” This all tells us about how, through Jesus, we can be saved from our sins – the fact that we mess up, get it wrong, fail to live as we know we should – and that this sin had consequences, most significantly in that it brings a separation, an alienation, between ourselves and God our maker. For all who are weighed down with guilt, an awareness of their failures, or a longing to know God, this is truly good news.

Or we can look at the verses from Isaiah which Jesus quotes as he later talks about his ministry,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come.

(Luke 4:18-19, NLT)

We see this fulfilled in Jesus’ life – the blind are healed and can see, those captive to evil spirits are freed, Jesus brings the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor and marginalised. God’s concern for the oppressed and marginalised is clear throughout. For those in society who are hard done by or pushed to the margins there is good news as they realise that God sees and does not just stand idly by.

The good news of Jesus Christ encompasses both these messages and more. But really the good news is more than just a good message, more even than a whole set of great messages, some of which will be very relevant to the hearer, and others less obviously so. We go back to the angel’s message, that the Messiah, the Lord had been born. The good news is ultimately tied up in a person, God’s son, Immanuel – God with us.

The greatest news is not a great story, philosophy, message, idea. Is not tied up in a blog post, however well or badly it may try and put across that message. The good news is Jesus.

Woolly thinking …

November 3, 2018

dav

One of the good things about where I work is that – although it is a large business and science park full of buildings – it only takes a few minutes walk before you are out in the countryside. I often go for lunchtime walks and over the last month or so some of the fields through which I walk have been full of sheep.

One lunchtime as I walked a few weeks ago, to my surprise, as well as the sheep I saw a lady standing in a nearby field watching over the sheep. I’m not sure if she was the farmer, a shepherd or some other person caring for the sheep. The sight of a shepherd is now a rarer occurrence than it once was.

I’m not an expert about sheep but they are not renowned for their intelligence and the sheep I’ve met haven’t seemed bothered to improve my opinion of them. Even in a safe field there is usually potential for them to get themselves stuck somewhere and no doubt these seemingly rather stupid animals need some oversight.

We however are different, with the ability to judge wisely, predict the future, anticipate problems, think things out, and generally make our own way safely in the world.
Only I don’t always feel this is true. Life can often be so complex, and dependent on people and circumstances which are so uncertain, that for all my education, time thinking things through, advice sought, and care taken, the right way forward seems impenetrable, the future unpredictable and I can all too readily land in a mess. I wish that I too could have a ‘shepherd’ to watch over me and help me through my scrapes.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 NLT)

I’m glad that I do.

Truth, Lies and Brexit

October 8, 2018

The Brexit negotiations have been thrown into disarray following the rejection of the chequers plan by the EU leaders recently.

In the interest of openness and honesty I should say that I voted to remain in the EU in the referendum and would still prefer not to leave it – although I do have misgivings about being part of a group that makes it so difficult to leave! But whatever your view on Brexit, circumstances have shown that neither side in the referendum accurately described what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU. Many remainers suggested immediate dire economic consequences which have not been born out. Leavers suggested that a good trade deal and the resolution of challenges – such as over the Irish border – would be easy to reach – the reality since then has been very different. The latter view seemed particularly unrealistic – how can you state so confidently that something will happen when this can only be with the agreement of others who have expressed such a different viewpoint.

So did the leaders of the leave and remain camps deliberately lie in order to win our votes? This may be true in some cases, but I am inclined to be more generous. I think many people were so taken up with their own convictions that they failed to see or understand – perhaps were even incapable of seeing – other perspectives on the matter. When we only see our side of an argument, then our ability to grasp the truth is seriously impaired.

This is nothing new. We are all swayed by our own personal experiences, past events or circumstances, friendships, preferences etc, as we look at an issue. No matter how hard we try, we will always look at things from a biased and limited perspective, and disagreements will occur with those who view matters from a different point of view. The more serious issue in my view is that we often fail to acknowledge our own limitations and insist that others recognise our ‘truth’. As Jesus said to a group who insisted that they were seeing clearly:

If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. (John 9:41, NIV)

So do we give up on any idea of knowing truth about any matter, and admit that disagreements, conflict, wars, are inevitable. If there were no God then I think I would be forced to such a pessimistic conclusion. But as a Christian I have more hope. There is a God who does not suffer these limitations, who sees all aspects of a matter. One in whom there is truth, indeed who is truth. And he offers to help us and guide us into wisdom. He has also given us a guide to know that truth and help us in the thorny issues of life – the Bible. You may say that in saying this I’m just setting up my own truth from my own biased perspective. I can’t prove that God is the ultimate truth but I have found by experience that I can trust in him and his word in my life.

For everyone, we need to recognise our own limitations and that we will never be the source or guardian of truth. With humility we need to listen to the one who is far wiser, who sees all things, and who is a far better guide in life than anyone else. Where there are things which we disagree about, perhaps he might just see things better than us.

For the person who accepts this, there is another question however. We may accept that God is our guide, and the Bible one of his primary ways of guiding us. Yet still Christians disagree about what God has said in the Bible. How do we know which Biblical interpretation is really the truth?

An important answer to this question is that God promises us that his Spirit will guide us into truth (see for example John 16:13, 1 Cor 2:14). But faithful, humble Christians, seeking the help of God’s spirit to understand the Bible, still come to different conclusions as they read it. I believe that there is another important element in our answer to this question. The Bible isn’t just given to us individually, but to us together as His church, his followers. We need the help of each other to understand it. This is emphasised in the picture of God’s people as a body with many different parts each with its gift to bring to the church as a whole. This is usually applied in terms of roles or gifts that we use in serving the church together, but it applies in other areas, including our understanding of what God is saying and has said to us. We need each other’s gifts, experiences, wisdom to gain a better understanding of the truth that God had revealed to us together as his people. Just seeking to understand it on our own, or only with people similar to ourselves – or just those from our own Christian tradition – will lead to a distorted understanding, like that of a bunch of ears, or a gathering of knees might have compared to the more rounded view of a body!

So we need to spend time listening to and learning together with many other followers of God with different characters and backgrounds, and from different church traditions than our own. This is not just talking about the occasional isolated ‘united church service’, or spending time with those from a few selected churches that we feel are ‘sound’ enough, but a real living out of Jesus’ picture of us together as His body the church. This is not easy to work out in practice. While we need to listen to different voices, not all are really seeking to listen to God’s truth – we need discernment too. But if we want truly to seek to know better the truth that God has given us, this seeking together is not an optional extra but a necessity.

Something to blog about

September 16, 2018

I see that it’s about 6 years since I last posted a blog article here. Looking at the site stats I also see that while I had a healthy (though far from earth shattering!) number of views of my blog articles for many years, it has dried to a tiny trickle of views over the last few years. However for the last few months I have increasingly felt that I should return to the blog. Why you might ask, when it seems to have died a death over the last few years? And why bother when it seems likely that no one (or at best very few) will read it?

Psalm 19 (NLT) says:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.

The beauty and grandeur of the sky, in particular I think the night sky, is a constant testimony to the greatness of the God who created it, who caused it to come into existence. I love looking up at the stars and as I reflect on them, and the immensity of the distances that I am looking across, this give me some inkling of the greatness of God. Yet many of these stars, great suns putting forth huge amounts of energy are scarcely visible or noticed by most of us. But they display God’s glory whether or not they are being looked at.

There are many questions in life to which I don’t know the answer, many things which are unclear. Many of my thoughts and views are not profound and unlikely to be worth sharing. But I do know that I know the God who made and loves me, and the truth that we can know him is truly amazing. And in the midst of the challenges of life, my God is the one thing I am sure and confident in. Given this there is value in ‘proclaiming his glory’ whether many or few will listen.

Rainbow in the fountain

September 10, 2012

There’s a fountain near my work, and one day – a year or so ago – I saw this beautiful rainbow reflected in it as I walked past. I’ve never seen it since, but last week, as I was passing on a lovely sunny day, I decided to walk carefully around it and try my best to find the rainbow again. I did find it – photo below (snapped on my mobile). It’s not as good a rainbow as the one I saw by accident a year ago, but it does at least show that if you pass a fountain on a sunny day and try enough viewing angles you have a reasonable chance of finding a rainbow in it!

Regarding the photo, I focussed into the distance in an attempt to make the rainbow clearer  – didn’t work brilliantly but that is why the rest of the photo is not particularly in focus – this was deliberate.

A rainbow in the fountain

Significance

June 6, 2012

 Many, if not most, people want their lives to count for something – they want to be significant. This can be in many spheres. At work we want responsibility, to have a higher profile role in whichever organisation we may work for. We want what we do in our work to last in some way and to make a name for ourselves which will last longer than we will. Others care more that their lives are significant to their friends and family, knowing that there are some around them whose lives are enhanced because they are there.

When those things which we hope / trust in to bring significance fail, then it’s tough going. Maybe it’s reaching an age – often somewhere around my own – when you start to suspect that you’re not going to achieve anything world changing after all. Or if family or friends reject or disappoint you, you realise that trusting your desire to be significant on those around you can be a shaky enterprise.

Contemplating the universe also makes it hard to feel significant – the earth is just one planet orbiting one star in a vast universe with an incomprehensibly large number of stars. And what’s one creature among many billions that live there? The eminent mathematician and physicist, Stephen Hawking is quoted as having said

‘We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence.’

Such reasoning makes sense– but it’s wrong. The staggering thing is that we are significant to God, he does care about us. This struck me recently as I was reading the book of Jonah. See my thoughts on Jonah for more details, but basically although it’s full of dramatic elements with a whale and a city full of ‘evil’ people deciding to change, the majority of the book really describes God taking time (and going to great lengths) to impact Jonah’s life, to change his attitude and to teach him an important lesson – that God cares about people, even those who seem not to deserve it. He cares about the cities of people, and also about each individual like Jonah.

If we are significant to God we know it’s not going to be because of something extra-special that we’ve done. Perhaps we don’t want the sort of ‘significance’ that depends on someone else being great (God), rather than us. But can there be any greater significance than that the God of the universe cares about us? And because it depends on God, not us, this significance will last.

Aeroplanes and beginnings

January 28, 2012

Chapter 4 of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ focuses on his central argument as to why ‘there almost certainly is no God’. His argues that God’s existence is highly implausible, an argument which he describes as ‘the ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’. The name comes from an illustration comparing the probability of life originating on earth as no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would assemble a Boeing 747. This sort of illustration is often used to argue that – given such an improbability – there must be a designer of life, God. Dawkins turns this argument round however and suggests that any such designer, or creator, must be more complex and therefore more improbable than the thing which has been designed.

For much of the chapter he seeks to counter the suggestion that the existence of life on earth is implausible. He argues that Darwinian evolution is a process which naturally explains how life can move from the simple to the more complex without the resort to any unlikely or improbable ‘chance’ occurrences. He then looks at other improbabilities required for life (as we know it) to exist; for example the need for water which imposes tight constraints on a planet’s orbit, how the physical laws of the universe seem finely tuned for life, and the improbability of the creation of the first cell. All of these potentially highly improbable events need only occur once, so their improbability can be balanced by the vast number of planets that probably exist around the universe, or a plethora of universes in a ‘multiverse’. Hence, while each event is highly unlikely to have occurred on any given planet / universe, the chances of it happening somewhere are perfectly reasonable. The anthropic principle then reasons that as we are here to be asking questions like this we must be in that place where conscious life has occurred. There are no such arguments to counter the implausibility of how God might have come into existence, however. The argument from implausibility, he argues, is therefore a strong one against the existence of God.

The weakness of Dawkins’ argument, I feel, is that he doesn’t really consider properly the question of ‘beginnings’. With regards to the improbable events required for life to exist – the first cell, the right physical laws etc., his argument may be valid, or it may not. The truth is that the probabilities he talks about are far too vague and unknown to really assemble any meaningful estimate of whether the vast number of planets or universes (the multiverse hypothesis is only that, a hypothesis, without any evidence, so how you can determine how many universes it might contain?!) does really counterbalance the low probability of the events which might occur in each one. But even allowing it as a valid argument, he doesn’t address the issue of why the universe bothers to exist at all in the first place? (Something else of great complexity and therefore highly improbable that it exists by Dawkins’ argument). The best you get from his chapter is a hope that physics might one day come up with some process analogous to evolution through which a complex universe naturally arises from a simple (nothing).

We naturally think of all things as having a beginning (and end) as that is our experience in life. The world around us has a definite ‘arrow of time’ which requires all things to have a start and end. The laws of thermodynamics, for example, insist that as time progresses all things move from an ordered to a less-ordered state and hence could not have just been there forever. But God is not part of the physical world around us, and hence does not need to have had such a beginning. Indeed the Bible tells us that he has always been around, without any such ‘starting point’. Arguments of improbability are only valid when considering how something might have come about from what was there beforehand. They have nothing to say about one who has always been there.

Dawkins seems to believe that God is postulated as a bad explanation for the mystery of why life exists – and now science has come up with a better, far more plausible answer. This is not true, however. I believe in God, not because I need an answer to the mystery of how I’m here, but because I know him personally. His existence is not an implausible hypothesis but an inner reality.


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