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Keeping the Faith

Someone I know regularly says to me “when will it all end?”, and of course he is talking about the lockdown, and I tend to offer my take on the fact that 11 months or so on and ‘we are getting there’- infections, hospitalisations and deaths are thankfully all sharply down- and around 20% of our population have now received the vaccine. This is all great news of course but it still means that for now we must continue “Hands. Face. Space.”

However, the continued lockdown is still a real burden on peoples’ lives especially on their already fragile mental health, and at this time I think we need to look towards those great people of faith who had to endure similar or worse conditions, who got through them and what their experience and sacrifice can mean to us here today in 2021.

For me you need look no further than the great man that was Noah (Genesis 5-9). He was the ninth descendant of Adam and Eve and a truly great patriarch who was said to be “a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).

As we know at this time -which was probably in what we now know as the Bronze age (maybe 4,000 BC or so)-God saw that the earth was so corrupt and filled with violence that He decided to destroy it and all of mankind, and to begin again with Noah and his family.

But that required Noah to build an Ark for him, his family, and the earth’s animals to survive in, whilst the world perished around them. Now you can imagine that when he and his family started to build this incredible vessel that he must have been mocked, ridiculed, and declared mad or worse and at a conservative estimate it is believed that it took them around 70-75  years to build the ark. Imagine the kind of things that would have been said of him and to him during those decades. Yet he persisted because he was a man of faith and knew what God said would happen, would come to pass. In fact, you can now get t-shirts with the inscription “They thought Noah was a conspiracy theorist. And then it began to rain.” However, Noah was no conspiracy theorist, but was a great man of faith who did what God asked of him.

The finished Ark must have been a magnificent vessel just to look at let alone be on, but we know from Genesis that it was 450 feet long, 75 foot wide and 45 foot high. To give you an idea of its size its length was greater than the height of ‘Big Ben’, was around twice the size of a Boeing 747 plane and inside it could accommodate 17 Olympic size swimming pools or over 125,000 sheep!

However, what is the connection between the current lockdown and Noah? I think it is that most theologians have come to the view that the Bible’s account of the Ark is that Noah and his family and the animals were on the Ark for around 370 days or so. Our lockdown is, as I write this, around 330 days and counting, but there are vastly important differences between the two experiences.

Guess what? the Ark did not have Wi-Fi, there was nothing to download during their year plus voyage waiting for the seas to recede- nothing to view or to listen to apart from natural scenes, to take away what must have been excessive boredom at times. Although the Ark was a 3 storey vessel it is believed to have had only 1 window and either a roof or basic skylight so you can imagine with all the animals on board it’s sanitary conditions would have been very basic, and can you imagine the smell!

Noah and his family were not young people either. Noah was 600 years old when the Ark was built, his sons were around 100 years old themselves, so these were not young adventurers . The faith they must have had waiting for that moment when the winds and sea would die down to allow them to encounter some kind of land to renew the earth must have been extraordinary and also very lonely as they were the only humans left in the world.

In comparison with our lockdown of getting on for 12 months now, although the demands and restrictions on us have been very significant, we have -unless self- isolating- always been able to take some exercise outside, to talk to people either in a socially distanced way or by telephone or via the likes of Zoom. Through the modern miracle of broadband and Wi-Fi we can pretty much listen to or view almost anything (maybe too much?) whilst we await for more people to be vaccinated and for the time when we can finally return to some kind of normality.

Noah and his family can show us the way to get through this current crisis- they had huge reserves of patience and faith, and finally when Noah sent a dove out across the oceans it returned with an olive leaf telling him at last that land was nearby. God rewarded them and mankind with his covenant sealed by the magical rainbow in the sky and if we keep our patience and faith, we too will get there.

How to avoid 'The mark of Cain'

One of the biblical stories that has always fascinated me is an early one- that of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). We will recall that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil , He sent them out from the Garden of Eden, and in time, they had children the first of which were Cain (the eldest) and Abel (the second born).

Now Cain became a farmer whilst Abel was a shepherd, but the trouble started when they presented offerings to God, and He preferred Abel’s sacrifices to that of Cain. Lack of faith may have been the reason but we don’t know for sure, but what is important is what happened next. Cain was angry and jealous at his offering being less well regarded than that of his younger brother, and he went into the fields and murdered Abel. So, we are early into the Genesis story and we already have the first murder and the first murderer – Cain.

He lied to God when asked where Abel was (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) and Cain became a cursed man. God banished him from the kingdom and Cain became a “a fugitive and vagabond” (Genesis 4:12), but to protect him, he was given what has become known as the ‘Mark of Cain’, and it is believed that his family line perished in the Great Flood.

In so many respects it is a very sad tale. God must have been so disappointed with his creation of humankind at that point- Adam and Eve had let Him down, as had their first born Cain and His new world which was so good, was already being spoilt and we know that in time things got much worse, so much more that God felt He had to start again with new people such as Noah.

For me though, there is a really important lesson here which Cain refused to learn, and it is something that is still a critical message for us to take on board. When God could see that Cain was unhappy about His reaction to his offering, He told him:

If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling; but because you have done evil, sin is crouching at your door. It wants to rule you, but you must overcome it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain was so jealous and angry that he could not see what was right, and that if he had, then he could have had peace. But he couldn’t, so Cain allowed sin to overtake and rule him.

Anger is of course a negative condition, but we can allow it to descend on us whether we are stuck in traffic, being irritated by something that is happening (or not happening) or when we just get ‘bogged down’ in “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

I think as Christians though, the story of Cain teaches us several important lessons for life:

  • Worshipping God is serious business and that although we can pretend that we honour Him, you can’t fool God with what you bring to Him;
  • We need to learn how to control our anger before it takes us into sin;
  • It is not for us to vent our rage by taking the law into our own hands -leave that to God;
  • Learn from our mistakes – if our offering to God is not acceptable, find out why and get better in honouring Him- Cain could have sought help from his brother rather than murdering him

The wiser way is to listen to and act out Paul’s great epistle:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Keeping Christmas

I was rather tickled by the large sign in the main Harvey Nichols’ store in London recently which simply said “Bah, Humbug!” (although it did also say “Roll on 2021!”). Why? Well because they perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, but what the store was quoting was part of one of the greatest pieces of Christian discipleship- the novella ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The phrase “Bah, Humbug!” is of course one of the classic catchphrases of a certain Ebenezer Scrooge and was his mean view of what Christmas meant to him. It is widely recognised what Charles Dickens published on 19 December 1843 hugely influenced what we now take for granted at Christmas - families gathering together, seasonal food and drink, fun, and games, and what could be described as a “festive generosity of spirit”.

However, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is more, much more, than just a hugely entertaining and moving tale of an old miser’s redemption on Christmas Eve, that changed how we celebrate the season of goodwill in modern times. Dickens wrote it as a Christian allegory (in the same way that CS Lewis did in his ‘Narnia’ books) because his Christian faith was deep and sincere. He once told his family:

“My dear children, humbly try to guide yourselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here and there”.

At its core, ‘A Christmas Carol’s message is that of the New Testament- that even the worst of sinners may repent and become good men and women. Its impact on Victorian society was huge. One writer said of it:

“the book is unique in that is makes people behave better”.

There was more. Following its publication there was a very significant upsurge in people giving to charitable needs, families did open their doors to those less well off, and in the USA there was one businessman who on reading it was so moved that he gave all his workers Christmas Day off (it was still not a public holiday there) and gave each of them a free turkey. That was the power of Dickens’ Christian fable.

A Christmas Carol’ though is no fairy tale. It was set very much in the reality of some peoples’ experience of Victorian Britain. Dickens had toured the country and had been moved and greatly upset by the numbers of street children living rough, ending up in workhouses or working down tin mines. He wanted to open readers’ hearts and social consciences to those people struggling to survive and to encourage those who could, to be benevolent towards them.

Its 79 page tale is of a man (Scrooge) who started out in life with great intentions but allowed himself to be beaten down by the world- his mother died giving birth to him and his father resented him for that. His beloved sister died too young, and he rejected the love of a good woman and replaced it with love of a new idol -the love of money. He had forgotten who God had created him to be- and turned himself into the cold, heartless monster that at the start of the story we know him to be.

Dickens though knew, that in life we do have chance after chance to be redeemed, to be transformed and ‘born again’-only if we take it. That is what Scrooge finally does – the 3 spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future show him the impact of his behaviour (treating his staff poorly, not helping those in need, and of course the potential premature death of poor Tiny Tim. Spoiler Alert: he did live!) but more importantly, how different the world can become if he repents and becomes anew.

The message of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is as vibrant and urgent in 2020 as it was almost 180 years ago. We should celebrate Christ’s birth by gathering together (but please make it ‘Small, Short and Local’!) and opening our hearts and if possible, our wallets, purses or time, to those less fortunate than ourselves. I can do no better than echo what Scrooge’s nephew (Fred) teaches him of Christmas:

“I have always thought that Christmas… as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable pleasant time, when men and women seem to open up their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as fellow travellers to the grave. I believe Christmas has done me good, and will do me good, so I say God bless it!”

Happy Christmas all!

Binge on Jesus

Even before COVID-19 started to change our lives, people binged. Here I am not talking about binge eating but the more recent phenomenon of watching episode after episode of a particular tv series or show we are into at one sitting-  a kind of TV marathon. It could be ‘Game of Thrones’, or Netflix’s brilliant ‘The Crown’.

Now there have been some serious concerns raised recently about this kind of addictive viewing, with evidence emerging that those people who binge watch TV are more likely to become depressed, lonely, and obese- this would make sense as quite often the bingeing can be done when we are on our own, perhaps self-isolating and in need of a pick-me-up.

I have been binge watching myself in the last few weeks, but I have hopefully done it responsibly but this time it has been different from normal TV viewing as I have been ‘binging on Jesus’. Now, I don’t mean by that reading the New Testament cover to cover in one marathon sitting (although that is an idea!), but rather I have been doing something that nearly 65 million people in 180 countries have also been doing.

‘The Chosen’ if you have not heard of it is simply a phenomenon. It is the first ever multi- season TV series on the life of Christ, and I believe it is the most inspiring, lifting, moving and transformative version of the Christian faith ever made. OK, that is a big call when you consider the likes of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ with Robert Powell and Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, and there have been hundreds of Christian series/films telling different aspects of Jesus’ mission over the years, and to be frank, most of them have been  pretty poor. Quite often that is due to the programmes or films being more concerned about evangelising rather than entertaining, and the result is that they only tend to appeal to Christians, rather than the general public- how can you further the Kingdom of God if you are only ever ‘preaching to the converted’? To disciple, we must get out of our Christian ‘bubble’!

This is where ‘The Chosen’ is so different. It has gained hugely impressive reviews from secular as well as Christian reviewers and audiences have been watching and re-watching its initial 8 episodes (Series 2 is currently being filmed). It is also unique as it is the most successful Crowdfunding project in entertainment history, as it was funded by 16,000 people who between them pledged more than $10m.

But why is ‘The Chosen’ so different from previous series and films that have come before? I think the answer lies in the fact that perhaps for the first time on screen, we learn more about the personalities in the Gospels- were the disciples married and how did their families react to them following Jesus?, how did Mary Magdalene become such a beloved disciple- what was her story and why did some follow Jesus but others turn down that incredible invitation?

‘The Chosen’ is also rich in something that most Christian shows lack – humour, fun and joy. Jesus laughs and he dances with his friends-he did not come here to make us all terribly serious about our life but “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The performances from the top line cast (Elisabeth Tabish as Mary Magdalen and Erick Avari as Nicodemus will pull at your heart strings) are outstanding-I predict that you like me will be moved and inspired by what you see. I truly feel that it is transformational – the aim if for 1 billion people to watch the series around the world and a great start has been made as the intention is that it will run to 7 full seasons.

The series is very keen to show that it- like any show -is never a substitute for the Gospels and some characters and dialogue have been added but the makers have been keen to show that they have taken historical and spiritual advice for the storylines in the show so that the truth and intention of the Scriptures remain (an ‘extra’ on the App is a biblical roundtable on the choices they made).

One other thing-it is free. You do not need to take out an expensive subscription to ‘Netflix’, ‘Amazon’,  or SKY to watch it. Because of COVID-19 the makers made it free for all to view on their App, or you can watch it on You Tube. People are encouraged to ‘Pay Forward’ the show – that simply means that, if you are able, they ask if you would donate money to allow others to see it. There is no pressure as everyone can see the series free if they want.

The trailer for it is below and at the end it guides you how to watch it- the App is free on both Apple (iPhone and iPad) and Google Play (Android)mobile phone systems.

Let’s binge on Jesus!