Monthly Archives: December 2014

Personal liminality – Neither here nor there

In the last post of the year I want bring the Cosmic liminality of living between the times that I talked of yesterday, down to the personal. Paul, in Philippians 3:10-14 speaks for how he experiences this.

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul wants to know Christ, not for all the benefits he can gain by being in fellowship with Christ but all the suffering, death as well as resurrection. He knows that Christ is immeasurably more valuable than his own life and so wants to be part of Christ’s life. This is Paul’s “already”. He already knows Christ but not fully. He is in a liminal period between knowing Christ partially and being completely in fellowship and union with Him.

Paul recognises, however, that he has not made it yet. There is still a “not yet”. So he clings to the hope in Christ and His life, death and resurrection. This is only possible because Christ has already taken hold of him. Paul’s efforts would be all in vain if this was not already the reality.

So Paul takes one more step. Forgetting his successes and failures of the past, Paul looks forward to the full salvation that will come in the future for which God has called him. That is, to be where He is. Paul is very future orientated in his outlook. He has already said that he could boast far more than anybody else about his past, but for Paul, this is irrelevant. The prize of full union with Christ is what he looks forward to.

In the meantime, in this liminal time, Paul knows the ambiguity of his thoughts, his feelings and his efforts. This is not a comfortable time for Paul, he needs to cling on to Christ and he need Christ to take hold of him. There is in the Christian life always an ambiguity, a discomfort and a sense of not belonging here. This is not unusual, if we felt at home now we perhaps have forgotten the eternal home. remade by Christ in the future.

At the end of a year that has brought me personally massive challenges, I want to move forward into the new year and press forward to the “not yet” of 2015 and God’s future.

God bless and a Happy New Year! I’ll be back on 5th January 2015.

Cosmic Liminality- Neither here nor there

Continuing our theme of liminality (being between two big events like Christmas and New Year) naturally made me think of how we live between the first and second coming of Christ: a Cosmic Liminality

In His earthly life, death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God. It was brought near in his presence. In the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost, the powers of the age to come became available to the Church. As Rene Padilla puts it, the future has invaded the present. He goes on to say that the Church therefore lives “between the times”. Now longer fully here but not having yet attained the future. Theologians refer to this as living between the “already” and “not yet”. A liminal period. A period where there is uncertainty, ambiguity and excitement. It is also a time, or should be in the church, where normal social relationships become questioned. We don’t act towards each other in the way the world would.

Love is the marker of this new age. So in this micro liminal period between Christmas and New Year let’s recognize the much greater cosmic liminal period that we live and in which we carry out our mission in the world.

Neither here nor there

Between Christmas and New Year I always get a feeling of disorientation. I never knew why this was until I married an Anthropologist! She gave a name to hook into this: Liminality. It is not a common term; my computer dictionary didn’t even have it. A little red line appeared under the word. So I’ve checked that I did spell it right and now it is in the dictionary.

Liminality is the state of being between two stages of life. Anthropologists use this for being in between beginning and ending parts of a rite of passage. People often leave the community for this period. The most obvious for us may be the honeymoon where you are between singleness and settled married life.

Being between Christmas and New Year does the same thing. In liminal periods, incidentally, social roles are often disrupted. For instance, in Pantomime the Dame is played by a man and the hero is played by a young woman.

I never really know what to do during this time. Eat more cannot be an option! Of course we go for walks…when its not pouring down. But I’m sort of at a loose end. I don’t really want to start any major project because New Year pops up just as you get going. Writing blogs is a good activity hat you can start and finish in this period ;).

So why am I waffling on about liminality. Apart from the fact that I am suffering from its effects. Well, I do think that this is a concept that can help us as we engage with contemporary society. Change is here to stay is a phrase I often use. Contemporary Western culture seems change. Nothing can stay the same. “Progress” or “Economic Growth” are lauded as vital where as “Static” or “Economic Stagnation” are the terms which seem most to be avoided.

This constant change means, that in some sense, society is suffering some sort of liminal state constantly. Some people feel almost in culture shock in their own country. Change wont go away. So I ask, where is our stability in a changing world?

Jesus, one of us? Why?

A student worker called Ada Lum wrote a book of Bible studies called Jesus, one of us. They are very good studies that attempt to relate Jesus to contemporary life. This, together with the fact that  46% of UK people do not see Jesus’ birth as relevant to their Christmas, got me thinking.

According to the Bible, Jesus was born to an unmarried mother (Matt 1) with all the stigma that that can bring. He was homeless when he was born (Luke 2). He became a political refugee, hunted by a power hungry, fearful madman (Matt 2). The first visitors after his birth were a group of Shepherds (Luke 2); not the most salubrious bunch. Even in the first 3 years of his life, he didn’t have a privilege of kingship, although he was a king.

And why did God become one of us? Well, let me leave that answer to Karl Barth, courtesy of “Karl Barth for Dummies” FB page

The object of divine action in the Incarnation is humanity. God’s free decision is and remains a gracious decision; God becomes a human being, the Word becomes flesh. The Incarnation means real and complete descent of God. God actually became what we are, in order actually to exist with us, actually to exist for us, in thus becoming and being human, not to do what we do – sin; and to do what we fail to do –God’s will; and so actually, in our place, in our situation and position to be the new human being.

He is one of us that we may become like him.

The Worst and Best Carols

In an attempt to be less bah humbug this year, I would like to reflect upon the worst and the best carols. Start with the bad ones and then celebrate the best ever. 

I don’t like a lot of carols because they are sentimental, but the worst ones are those that perpetuate myths about the nativity. One introduces characters that don’t even exist in the story. No, there is no donkey, little or otherwise!

Some just get all the facts wrong. For example “We three kings of Orient are”. In the gospel of Matthew we are told that they are Magi, not kings. We are told that they brought three gifts but not that there were three of them. They certainly came from the east, but they were certainly not from the orient.

OK, rant over.

What of the best. Well, there is only one candidate in my list: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

This is the real deal. It gives us the true meaning of Christmas. It gives us the theological meaning behind Christ’s coming. God and sinners reconciled by the incarnate deity, who is born that we no longer need to die, we are given second birth. That’s why we can join with the angels and sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

The Nobody God

As I said yesterday, I get grumpy at this time of year. The increasing commercialism of Christmas, the dumbing down of the story and all the myths around the story drive me nuts! Where is Jesus in all this? Christ is being shoved out of the Christ-mas. Xmas, happy holidays as a greeting raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels. Christ is being marginalised.

Then I suddenly realised, this is the story, apart from a light show and carol concert on a hill outside Bethlehem, the town was unmoved by Jesus’ birth. A peasant girl having a baby was not big news. At “the first Christmas” Jesus was not at the centre. He was marginalised, he was the nobody God, he was the God of the nobody.

And this is the meaning of Christmas; the real God is on the side of the nobody. It is not the winner of X-Factor or Strictly who is most important to God, it is the child in Syria or Iraq who is suffering the evil of IS or the bombs of the US.

So here’s to the Nobody God. Let us serve Him.

The true meaning of Christmas? Bah Humbug!

A couple of glimpses of Christmas. I caught a glimpse of Ant and Dec as I was searching for something else on the TV last night. It was only a glimpse; which is about all I get of Ant and Dec before my thumb automatically clicks again. All I heard was that the true meaning of Christmas was about giving: quite a common statement these days.

I also caught glimpse, actually more than a glimpse, of The One Show last night. Chris Evans and Alex Jones went next door from the BBC to All Souls Langham Place. They gatecrashed a carol service but described it as visiting a neighbour. One of clergy there said that visiting neighbours was important at Christmas because many people are lonely at this time of year. He described God as the best good neighbour because instead of staying away he came round to see us in Jesus! An interesting take. Alex Jones looked rather taken a back!

This time of year makes me feel (at act) rather Bah Humbugesque! So instead of being the grumpy old man that I am, I decided that I would think about what the Bible tells us about the birth of Christ and more specifically, what it tells us about God.

The events of the birth of Christ are to be found in only two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. They are very different stories. Matthew’s account is minimalist. Apart from Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew recounts Joseph’s dream, the story of the Magi, the escape to Egypt and return to Nazareth. Luke is far more detailed a really does feel like an eye-witness account. The repetition of how Mary pondered these things in her heart could be evidence to say that Luke got the story from her.

Over the next three days I will write some short reflections for Christmas, hopefully to prompt us, and me especially not to be Scrouge-like but to understand more of what God is telling us about himself in these stories.

A Magical Afternoon

A final offering for this week from our (or actually my) resident Anthropologist.

It was a pleasant late summer’s afternoon when we gathered on the patio overlooking the manicured lawn and built-in pool to celebrate Niñon´s 29th birthday. Not many of the eight ladies present are able to live so elegantly so it was quite a treat to be served tea in china cups and be attended by a uniformed maid.

The conversation became quite interesting when I overheard Alicia say the words “faeng shwee”, now I thought that sounds quite familiar but badly pronounced, I wonder does she mean “feng shwei” (say “fung shwey”). Yes, she did and the gist of the conversation ran something like this.

Alicia “A lady came to my house and asked if I wanted it reorganised according to the Chinese art of faeng shwee”.

Wilma “I think you must mean ´feng shwei´ it is Chinese and means literally wind and water”.

Alicia “Oh, you lived in Taiwan so I suppose you know what it means?”

Wilma “It is a Chinese magical art aimed at helping people live in harmony with nature. The idea is that you balance up the various forces of nature so that your surroundings are harmonious with the Tao. It is based in the animistic world view of the ancient Chinese”.

Well, that certainly raised eyebrows and all of a sudden I was the centre of attention! The momentary silence was followed by a flood of questions.

Alicia “You know, you have to be so careful about these things, we have had so much bad luck recently. Our house has been broken into five times and we had a car accident. My mother in law stuck a charm on the front door that she got in Egypt and I think things have just got worse since then.”

Wilma “It is probably lucky words from the Koran. Was it blessed by some kind of local imam or magician?”

Alicia “Yes, it was”.

Wilma “It probably has no significance but if you are worried about it you should burn it. However, we must not credit these things with too much power. Most of their power is just the weight of tradition and fear. If you don´t fear it then it won´t have any power over you. It is rather similar to the Apostle Paul´s attitude towards food offered to idols, the food has no power to harm you so don´t bother your conscience by asking questions about it. In Taiwan we lived in the parish of a Taoist temple and we frequently ate with families during Chinese New Year. If these beliefs and traditions have any power we can be sure that it is completely insignificant in comparison with the power of our God.”

Adriana “Would you not even be afraid to have a pyramid in your house?”

Wilma “No, I don´t believe that a pyramid has power just because of its shape”.

Adriana “Wilma, you must be the least superstitious person that I know!”

Wilma “!!!!!….”

So, I´m left thinking what is all this about? Here are a group of young women, all educated, sophisticated, and evangelical Christians, who are afraid of Egyptian charms and pyramids! What is going on? Is it that I have become too rational and secular or have they given too much weight to these “new”oriental ideas infiltrating our western society. If we can so easily reject old western beliefs as “superstitions” and “old wives tales” why do we give so much credence to new “superstitions” just because they are oriental? How do we discern between silly superstitions and genuine dangerous occult beliefs and practices?

The upshot of all that conversation is that I had to give a talk to the ‘youngish marrieds group’ about New Age influence on our western society and guide a discussion on what the Christian´s response should be.

Blessed are the poor?

Here is another story from Wilma

I held the twisted arthritic hand whilst we all prayed. Her skin was soft and old and I reckoned she was about 75. Blanca was always first in church waiting for the service to start. “How come?” I asked, “do you live near?” “Oh, five meters away”, she laughed. She enjoyed my surprised expression. “Yes, I live in a tiny house here in the church grounds. I used to live with my son, but it just didn’t work out, so God provided this little house and I am so grateful”. Yesterday, we sat in the winter sunshine and I looked closer at the little house. With its grey panelling and maroon wooden frame raised upon stilts, and its three rickety steps to the front door it reminded me of something between a garden shed and an old fashioned gypsy caravan. “Do you have any water”, I asked. “No, I have to use the church bathroom, which isn’t convenient in the middle of the night if you aren’t well”. But there isn’t any water in there either I thought! “Is it very cold or do you have a heater?” I asked. “I do have a kerosene heater, but when it is windy the draft comes up through the gaps in the floor boards lifting the roof slightly”. I shivered at the thought. It reminded me of another chilly visit which I had recently made.

Liliana welcomed me with kisses on both cheeks and took me around to the back entrance of her solid little house. Wild barking greeted me but the dogs were safe behind a child gate in the ‘living room’. I say ‘living room’ but it was completely bare except for a fridge freezer and a TV on a stand angled in such a way that it could be seen from the dining room. When the dogs calmed down I could hear the Christian radio in the background, “I keep it on day and night” she explained, “it keeps away the powers of evil”. Liliana invited me to sit at the table while she bustled about closing the back door and making some tea. Instead I followed her to the ‘kitchen’ and found that the stove was in the bathroom which had no door! I was really quite confused.

Clasping the hot mug of tea with both hands I controlled my shivers while Liliana told me her story. She used to have a good job and she had been fixing up the house, I had noticed the ‘olde worlde’ windows and the smart polished wooden door, she also proudly pointed out the varnished wooden ceiling and the two Formica shelves, but after loosing her job she barely manages to live. There were only three packets of food on the shelves. She couldn’t pay the phone bill so the company eventually cut her off completely. She asked if I was cold, and trying not to lie nor offend her I held the cup closer and said I was okay.   “Don’t you have any kind of heat?” I asked. “I used to have an electric heater but I couldn’t pay the bill so the company came and took it away”. There was electricity though; best not to ask where it came from! “How do you keep warm,” I asked, “I go to bed early and the dogs lie at my feet, then I am really cosy”. “Never mind that” she said with a look of triumph in her dark deeply lined eyes, “today I worked”. Well!  And it was only Sunday past that she had asked me to pray that she would get work! She continued, “Adriana said that I could sell the bread that she bakes and that I could keep one quarter of the gains. It was very tiring carrying that heavy basket of bread, but I prayed and God strengthened me and I made it. And guess what, not one person refused to buy my bread! In three hours I made $7 (£1.50)”.   She read to me from the Bible which had been open on the table and we prayed together, I rather quietly, trying to get all the subjunctives right, and she with loud ‘amen’s’ and ‘gloria a Dios’.

It was 7’C outside, but she insisted on accompanying me to the taxi office as the area wasn’t safe. I huddled by the gas heater waiting for the taxi to come fantasying about a hot bath and my electric blanket.

So many times I have realised how privileged I am to have so much and to take it all for granted! But what a blessing to know Blanca and Liliana and be blessed by their fervent faith and devotion to God! Jesus said “Blessed are the poor”, not because they are poor, as poverty is in itself a terrible hardship, but blessed because they have learnt to depend on God and be grateful for everything. How would I manage if I had to live in such poverty?

“The mountains reveal the glory of the Lord”

This is something, my wife Wilma wrote a few years ago. It is still worth reading though.

 

Illumani

The thin cold air at 12,000feet makes my head spin and I feel a little nauseous and unsteady. But what a view! I am on top of the world!

The bright sunshine pierces the thin air and the deep black shadows etch out pillar after pillar along the cliff face. The soft pebbly rock of these barren grey mountains sculpts easily by the wind and rain. The resulting cliff is deeply gullied even leaving freestanding pillars where the rock has retreated, the next row will soon stand freely like sentinels or collapse in a dangerous heap for lack of support, landslides are a constant danger.

The range of giant mountains stretches out on either side of me, cradling the city of La Paz in its embrace. From a distance the sides and bottom seem to erupt with a profusion of scattered small blocks, the dwellings being made mostly from the stuff of the earth. Only in the central plateau rises a shiny modern city of white plaster and concrete and glass towers, but they are also planted on the soft eroding rock, which will last the longest, I wonder?

The thunder clouds part and I lift my gaze only to be stunned by majestic Illumani. The snow capped volcanic peaks soar to over 21,000ft. Breathtaking Illumani, source of myth and legend, reigns queen of the giant mountains. A geologist’s paradise!

The little church clings precariously to the mountainside and I cross the cobbled road in anticipation. The congregation, half of which seem to be children under ten, sing heartily to the accompaniment of one electric piano and four primary school boys on zampoñas (pan pipes). It is just as well for at 11,000 ft. my heart is beating a little too fast and I can’t quite make a whole line of “Majesty” in one breath.

 

People start to stream forward to put their offering in the box. I am very conscious of being the only fair haired person present and as I hate being conspicuous I asked the little boy next to me to go up and put in my offering. Silvana had put him there because he had been naughty, but he accepted the money with a brilliant white smile and walked to the front – the wrong way round the church! Now, I wondered, why did he do that? As he passed all his friends in the front row he proudly held out the note to show it off to them, then with head held high and triumphant smile he pushed into the line and put the money in the box. Perhaps it isn’t an attitude that we would want to encourage but it was so funny that those who noticed couldn’t help it and just burst out laughing.

He came back and sat beside me and I asked his name, he bowed his head and whispered shyly, “Jonah”. I looked at him more closely, his blue black hair shone, his eyes twinkled, and he smiled radiantly, but the cheeks of his brown face were dry and rough, weathered by cold, wind and sun, just like the ancient mountains, but he was only five. His hands and shoes were dusty and his clothes old and stained by playing in the dirt. An Aymara. A child of the earth.

 

The highlight of today’s service was a children’s cantata. The little choir of eight pretty girls and two well-scrubbed boys were robed in cream ponchos edged with traditional cloth.   They sang their hearts out, “I am only a child but I want to serve him”. Nine other pieces followed and all from memory. They were fantastic. The congregation spontaneously applauded, they deserved it.

A young Aymara man, a student at CCM, preached a very biblical sermon. It probably flew at the height of Illumani over the heads of most worshippers, and certainly wasn’t aimed at the children, but very promising, a future leader no doubt. A missionary’s paradise!

It was such a short visit and already I was on my way back to the airport. The cobbled streets were strangely empty of cars, but not of people. Short stout La Paz women ambled by at a leisurely rate, their colourful gathered skirts swinging almost to their ankles. Today many were out for a stroll in their Sunday best, satin skirts with deep fringed shawls around their shoulders, long plaits, (augmented by black wool tassels if necessary), hanging to the waist and topped by a tiny bowler hat. Others carried a baby, or was it bag of potatoes? It was hard to tell, since it was wrapped in a multicoloured awayo cloth and tied to their backs. What an interesting people. Once again I am captivated by the exotic! An anthropologist’s paradise!