What are you waiting for?

Waiting is a normal human experience: for the kettle to boil, for the holidays, for exam results, for an end to the pandemic… The British are supposed to be good at waiting – we’re famous for queuing. We’re not the only ones: the Russians too have historically been good at waiting (and queuing):

 A Soviet citizen goes to a garage hoping to buy a car. 
 The salesperson says:
 'No problem. But there's a fifteen-year waiting list'.
 'You mean, if I come back fifteen years today, 
 I can have a car?'
 'That's right'.
 'Morning or afternoon?'
 'Does it matter?'
 'Yes, I've got the plumber coming in the morning'.  

Waiting is a traditional theme of Advent. Paul talks about waiting for Jesus to come again to this world to put everything right; another New Testament writer speaks of “waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which justice will be at home”.

Why do we have to wait? Why doesn’t God deliver justice now? People are suffering, the planet is suffering, his reputation suffers.

God delays delivering justice because he is patient. He too is waiting: waiting for us to acknowledge our part in what’s wrong with the world, our alienation from him which makes us less than we are meant to be and prevents us fulfilling our God-given destiny.

We were created to share with God himself in the government of the universe. That may sound absurdly grand but that’s what the Bible means by saying that we are created in his image. The plan only works if we acknowledge that he is God and work with him rather than against him or apart from him. In the Garden of Eden humanity said No to that plan and we’ve lived with the consequences ever since. (People differ about how you should take that story: as literal historical truth or truth communicated in the form of narrative. What matters is its truth.) Jesus came to get the plan back on track and enable us to be fit for purpose. We have to stop saying No to God and say Yes instead. Jesus and the Bible call that “repentance”. God waits for our repentance.

Repentance is just the beginning. God is also waiting as, little by little, we learn to be ready for the end of the story. The end of the story (which is also the beginning of the real story) is this:

“they will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22.5).

God’s purpose is to prepare us for rule, for sharing with him in the shape and direction of the universe itself. We have a lot to learn. This life is our chance to do the learning: to trust him, to listen to him, to wait for him, to learn his way of doing things which is different from ours, to learn to love, to learn patience like his patience, and much else besides.

Dallas Willard was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. Here he is writing about prayer, but what he says applies to our whole life with God:

Prayer.. is an arrangement explicitly instituted by God in order that we as individuals may count, and count for much, as we learn step by step how to govern, to reign with him in his kingdom… This high calling also explains why prayer frequently requires much effort, continuous effort, and on some matters possibly years and years of effort. Prayer is, above all, a means of forming character. It combines freedom and power with service and love. What God gets out of our lives – and, indeed, what we get out of our lives – is simply the person we become. It is God’s intention that we should grow into the kind of person he could empower to do what we want to do. Then we are ready to ‘reign for ever and ever’.

Dallas willard, The Divine Conspiracy: rediscovering our hidden life in God

What are we waiting for? A future which is unimaginably glorious and fulfilling. Meanwhile, we are involved in a lifelong adventure of learning.

Pandemic Journey 4

The Pandemic has brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. Among the worst is the bizarre claim by some that it’s all a hoax.

Writing about Paul’s journey to Rome, I have been conscious that some twentieth-century scholars have claimed that this too was a hoax. The allegation takes two main forms: that Luke borrowed the account of a real journey and simply inserted Paul into it; or that, even if the journey was real, then Paul the prisoner couldn’t possibly have played the decisive role in it portrayed by Luke.

James Smith of Jordanhill, Glasgow, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, an authority on ancient shipbuilding and navigation, a geologist, a biblical scholar, and a yachtsman of thirty years’ experience. In 1848 Smith published The Voyage and Shipwreck of St Paul (available here), in which he investigates in great detail the accuracy and credibility of Luke’s account in the book of Acts.

Building on his knowledge of ancient shipbuilding and navigation, he spent a winter in Malta exploring the locations mentioned in Luke’s narrative and interviewing seamen experienced in sailing the eastern Mediterranean. The following summer he spent in the museums and libraries of Naples, Florence, Lausanne, Paris and London doing more research. Finally, he retraced the voyage itself in his own yacht. The book is a fascinating account of his journey which leaves the reader in awe at Luke’s extraordinary accuracy and attention to detail as a historian. Smith’s conclusion is worth quoting:

A searching comparison of the narrative, with the localities where the events so circumstantially related are said to have taken place, with the aids which recent advances in our knowledge of the geography and the navigation of the eastern part of the Mediterranean supply, accounts for every transaction – clears up every difficulty – and exhibits an agreement so perfect in all its parts as to admit but of one explanation, namely, that it is a narrative of real events, written by one personally engaged in them.

The twentieth-century German scholars who cast doubt on the authenticity of Luke’s narrative were writing more than half a century after Smith had proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Luke was telling the truth – presumably in ignorance of his work. The motive for doubting Luke’s account seems to have been in large part a belief that what mattered to Luke (and therefore what should matter to us) is the significance of the story rather than its historical truth. In other words, they wanted us to believe that Acts should be read much as we read the parables of Jesus, as stories with a powerful meaning but no claim to be based in fact.

This leads me to some conclusions:

1. History (facts, events, narratives) and theology (meaning, significance, value, application to contemporary experience) belong together. What God has joined we should not try to pull apart. This is a mistake, a basic misunderstanding of the Christian faith, which is grounded in the meaning of events in history: the word became flesh, Christ died for our sins, he was raised on the third day… When it comes to history and theology, you really can have your cake and eat it.

2. The unity of history and theology applies to our lives too. What we do, the choices we make, the lives we live: they matter. We make a difference. Sometimes the difference only emerges much later, perhaps only after we’re long gone. As we walk with God, he is working out his purposes. We are partners with him in making history.

3. It is unwise to rubbish the historical basis of biblical history. Sooner or later the truth tends to emerge. In the case of Paul’s voyage to Rome, the credibility of Luke’s account had been established long before the attempt was made to discredit it.

4. God calls us to faith and patience. That means being willing to wait for answers to our questions and to live without them if necessary. I first encountered radical scepticism about the historical value of Acts as a theological student. I was sceptical about the sceptics but had no means of proving they were wrong – until, some ten years later, I discovered James Smith. There will be times when we don’t have answers to our critics or the critics of our faith. The psalms tell us to wait for the Lord. Life will set us many puzzles as people of faith. Waiting for God (to point the way, to reveal the truth, to show his hand) is a vital spiritual lesson. The season of Advent reminds us to wait in hope.

Pandemic Journey 3

The Pandemic has put us all in the same boat. Whether we realise it or not, we are “all in this together”. In April this year UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that we are caught up in a global public health emergency, which is also an economic crisis, a social crisis and a developing human rights crisis.

The two hundred and seventy-five people adrift in the Mediterranean with the apostle Paul were likewise “all in this together”. At one point the sailors tried to jump ship by lowering a boat into the sea in the hope of escaping and leaving the rest to their fate. But Paul quickly put a stop to that, telling the centurion:

Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved (Acts 27.31).

The soldiers cut the ropes and set the boat adrift.

Attempting to escape the restrictions imposed by being “all in this together” – whether now in the Pandemic or then on the boat with Paul – puts everyone at risk.

Like all the best stories, this one functions on several levels at the same time. It is first of all a straightforward account of people being saved from drowning at sea. Paul, despite being technically a prisoner under guard, effectively takes charge of the ship and saves the passengers. Before his intervention they had given up hope and were waiting to die.

The root word for “saved”/”salvation” crops up seven times in the narrative of Acts 27 and 28 (in various forms which are not always obvious in the English translations). In the Bible, seven is the number of completeness (think seven days of creation). This is a story of rescue from death, not just of some of those on board, but everybody. It’s total rescue.

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

Paul was a preacher of the gospel, of “good news”. In this instance, he is being good news. In the same way, we are called not only to proclaim good news but to be it.

Like Jesus himself, we are to do as much good as we can, particularly in a time of emergency. We are not supposed to sit back passively and let events take their course; we are supposed to do something to help.

Total rescue is the heart of God for his world, not just from the coronavirus, but from all the effects of human foolishness, selfishness and alienation from God. Paul’s companions were rescued from death by trusting him – believing what he told them and acting on it. So it is with rescue (“salvation”) from our bad choices and the ingrained selfishness which the Bible calls sin. Salvation is “by faith”: taking Jesus at his word and putting our lives in his hands.

People are still taking Jesus at his word and discovering his rescue.

More on Paul’s voyage in my next post.

Pandemic Journey 2

Covid-19 has taken us all down a road of loss and pain. The loss comes in many forms – from actual loss of life and loved ones, through financial loss, loss of normal activity and loss of livelihood, to loss of human contact and freedom of choice and movement. The pain comes from the loss, of course, but it also comes in the shape of added burdens: the pain of NHS staff overwhelmed with desperately sick patients, the pain of those in authority having to make near-impossible choices, and so on.

Paul’s journey to Rome has something to say about this. It tells us that, despite appearances, God is at work for a good purpose in the midst of the loss and the pain. How do I know this? Because, looking closely at Paul’s journey, we can see that in some ways his experience mirrors the experience of Jesus as he goes to the cross.

For example:

Jesus is subjected to a series of trials: before the Jewish Council, before Pilate and before Herod. Paul is also put through a series of trials: before the Jewish Council, before Felix the Governor, before Festus his successor and before King Agrippa.

As Jesus hangs on the cross there comes a moment when darkness overshadows the whole land for three hours. As Paul and his companions are being buffeted by the storm “neither sun nor stars appeared for many days”.

The death of Jesus looks like the end of all hope; it brings his followers to despair. But, the other side of death, he rises to new life and his followers are commissioned to bring hope to the world. The storm at sea brings those on board the ship to a place where “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned”. But, under Paul’s guidance, those on board are all saved and Paul goes on to proclaim the gospel in Rome “with all boldness and without hindrance”.

Being a disciple of Jesus means following Jesus, including following Jesus in the way of the cross. Paul is doing just that. And, in following Jesus, he becomes more like Jesus. To use Paul’s own words, he is being “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son”.

This is not a special experience for apostles but the core experience of all Christians. God takes the harsh and difficult experiences of our lives and uses them to shape in us more of the character of Jesus, more of the divine family likeness:

“… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters”. (Romans 8.28-29)

This is something God does. He takes what life throws at us and makes it work for good. And that’s different for all of us. There is no predetermined set of experiences we all have to go through. For each of us, life will provide plenty of material.

Years ago, in the midst of a personal crisis and feeling confused about what God was doing in my life, I decided to read the book of Job. The first twenty-two chapters didn’t mean a great deal to me, but then chapter 23 came and hit me between the eyes:

Even today my complaint is bitter;
    his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.
If only I knew where to find him;
    if only I could go to his dwelling…

But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.

The words of Job both expressed my confusion and helped me see (just a little) of what God might be doing. “When he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold”. That is the purpose of God for all of us.

We have a part to play. We can respond to the harsh realities of life with bitterness and unbelief, or with faith and trust. The tough times in life may be (probably will be) profoundly distressing and disturbing. But we still have a choice about how to respond.

More of that in my next post.

Pandemic Journey – Advent Hope

There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Today, at the beginning of Advent, we celebrate that God has a plan to restore his world, a plan launched at the first Christmas, with the birth of the One who would be at the centre of that plan.

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Not only are there now three effective vaccines against Covid-19 soon to come on stream, but the latest one – from the group at Oxford University – is cheap and easy to store. So there’s hope we can vaccinate not only ourselves but contribute to vaccinating the rest of the world as well. There’s light at the end of the tunnel… but we still don’t know where the tunnel is going to come out – what life will look like in, say, a year’s time. Where are we heading?

Recently I watched Paul Harcourt (National Leader of New Wine) on YouTube drawing some profound lessons about living with the virus from the account in Acts 27 of the apostle Paul’s nearly-disastrous sea voyage to Rome. Paul (Harcourt, not the apostle) draws our attention to the moment they saw land ahead:

When daylight came, they did not recognise the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could.

“They did not recognise the land”: when the shadow of the virus is lifted from us things will very likely look rather different from the way they do now. We may not return to “normal”; instead, we may find ourselves in a “new normal”.

Paul’s talk set me thinking about what else this story from Acts might have to say about where we’re headed.

Acts 27 is a great read, but here in brief is how Paul (the apostle, not Harcourt) gets to be on a boat in a storm. He has set off a riot in the Jerusalem Temple and been rescued and taken into protective custody by the Romans. In sheer frustration at the time it’s taking for his case to be resolved, he appeals to Caesar. So he is dispatched to Rome, guarded and escorted by a centurion. The journey does not go well, mainly because – against good sense and Paul’s own advice – the centurion presses ahead with the journey when it’s much too late in the year for a safe sea voyage. They get caught up in a violent storm and spend many days out of control and at the mercy of the elements.

Just when everybody on board the ship has given up hope and assumes that they’re going to drown, Paul intervenes. He tells them that an angel of God has appeared to him and assured him of two things: he will get to stand before Caesar in Rome and everybody on board will be saved and survive the storm.

The purposes of God will not fail. However bad things may seem, however difficult or dangerous our circumstances may be, however much of a mess of things we make, God sticks to his purposes and keeps his promises.

Paul is going to meet the Roman Emperor himself, ruler of the known world. What would Paul say to him? I imagine he would speak truth to power – telling him about Jesus, the one who is the true Lord of the world. Jesus, Paul would say, (not Caesar) is in charge of the direction of history, he holds the future. It’s in good hands.

God is always about the business of establishing his Kingdom, his rule of justice, kindness and compassion. Somehow he manages to work with and through the mess we make, including things like Covid-19.

Acts 27 doesn’t encourage us to think that God sent the virus, any more than he engineered such a traumatic journey to Rome for Paul. The arrival of the virus and the decision to put to sea at the wrong time of year were equally the result of human foolishness.

I like the picture painted by the Oxford philosopher J. R. Lucas who said that God is like the Persian rugmakers who let their children help them. In each family the children work at one end of the rug, the father at the other. The children fail to carry out their father’s instructions exactly, but so great is their father’s skill, that he adapts his design at his end to take in each error at the children’s end, and work it into a new, constantly adapted, pattern.

More on Paul and the pandemic in my next post.