Dealing with fear

paris-terrorToday I’d like to talk a little bit about fear. Not in the abstract, but in the all too concrete. To do so, I need to get personal and talk about a recent experience of mine.

I would say I am not generally a fearful person. I don’t go through life worrying about imagined future possibilities. But a couple of nights ago, for some reason, I had a bad night… a night of real fear.

I woke up in the middle of the night, as I sometimes do, but instead of drifting back to sleep I found myself thinking about the recent terror attacks in Paris and the likelihood – if not the certainty – that there will be more and much worse to come.

As I thought about the Middle East, ISIS, the migrant/refugee crisis, and growing social tensions in a number of western nations, my mind began to play out apocalyptic scenarios involving not only terrorist attacks, bombings and the spectre of a group like ISIS obtaining nuclear weapons, but also a total breakdown of law, order and the social fabric within my own country, and all the attendant impacts on home, family… even survival. Try as I might, I could not quiet my thoughts and go back to sleep.

I don’t know how long I was awake; it may only have been an hour or so, but as I laid there in a cold sweat and with my heart pounding, it felt like a lot longer. Then, finally, sleep came and I didn’t wake again until the morning. Continue reading

Some brief birthday reflections

268369035_95b83e4e8b_oSo, today I begin my forty-sixth revolution around the sun. I always think a birthday is a good time to pause for a moment and consider what has gone before, give thanks, and consider how one might be positioned and equipped for what lies ahead.

“Tempus fugit”, they say, and they are right. As my daughter prepares to go to university next year, I almost can’t believe it’s over 22 years since I graduated. Sometimes it seems like you blink and a decade flashes past. Such is life. Continue reading

What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like? Continue reading

Cognitive dissonance


The image above was shared by a friend on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was too good not to comment on, at least briefly.

Which of you if, while listening to the news, hears of an episode of large-scale ethnic cleansing, will not rush to condemn it as utterly barbaric and ungodly? (And let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of examples in the last decade or two, from the former Yugoslavia to West Africa, not forgetting ISIS’s atrocious actions in Iraq and Syria.)

And yet, when Christians read of Israel’s slaughter of indigenous Canaanite populations in the Old Testament, any remotely similar response often seems to be lacking. Continue reading

Did God change?

14148407957_cdfea81f82_oIn this short post, I’d like us to consider two passages of scripture.

Our first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In this chapter, God is giving the prophet Ezekiel instructions on how to restore his glory to the temple. I just want to pick out three verses:

For seven days you shall provide daily a goat for a sin-offering; also a bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be provided. For seven days shall they make atonement for the altar and cleanse it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 43:25-27, NRSV; italics mine)

Of course, there’s plenty more ritual to be performed before we even arrive at this passage, but these three verses alone are enough to give an idea of the hoops you apparently had to jump through if you wanted to be accepted by God.

Now, consider this well-known passage from the fourth Gospel:

But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God. (John 1:12-13, NCV; italics mine)

Do you see the contrast? In the first passage above, we have just one example of the myriad hurdles over which priests and ordinary people had to jump if they were to be accepted by God. But in the second passage, the only hurdle that has to be jumped is that of accepting and believing. So what changed? Why did God suddenly decide he no longer needed sacrifices and purification rituals and burnt offerings?

Did God change his mind or his mood? Did Jesus’ death appease him so he could now accept us without blood? Or is something else going on here? Continue reading

Some thoughts on thinking theologically

5068482159_c0bf58c6d9_bIn recent years, I’ve become quite passionate about theology. Having recently begun to read Stanley Hauerwas’s latest book The Work of Theology (review to follow in due course), I felt inspired to share a few thoughts about what theology is, or at least what I, from my decidedly amateur perspective, perceive it to be. (I hasten to add that what follows consists solely of my own thoughts, uninformed by dictionary definitions or anyone else’s formal statement of what theology is. So if I say something nonsensical, the fault is entirely mine.)

Semantically speaking, theology is, of course, the study of God. But here we immediately run into a problem, because the very word study for many people implies dusty academic libraries and stacks of impenetrably complex and somewhat abstract books and essays. And study can be these things. But it need not fit the image of tedious labour that it so often attracts. (As for myself, while I’m passionate about theology, I have no formal theological training, though I’d love to remedy this one day, if time and money permit).

I have come to think of theology not just as the study of God in the academic sense but as thinking about God. Not thinking in the way that we might think about that nice holiday we had last summer, or what we might eat for lunch, or how to solve a thorny mathematical problem; rather, theology is deliberate, clear thinking about God. Continue reading

On the false self and self-disclosure in the internet age

6988270931_5bf6a75fd7_oI first heard the name of Trappist monk Thomas Merton a few years ago in an article by the late Michael Spencer at The Internet Monk. Being at that point a stranger to the idea of contemplative spirituality, I registered mild interest and moved on. In recent years, thanks to the work of Richard Rohr and others, the idea of a quieter, more reflective form of spiritual practice has gradually endeared itself to me. (Though, lest anyone should think I’m now an accomplished contemplative, think again: I’m very much a novice at the beginning of the journey.) So it is that I’ve finally got around to reading some of Merton’s work – namely, his 1962 book New Seeds of Contemplation.

This book is so brimming with rich, thought-provoking insight that I stopped highlighting it after I realised that I was highlighting just about every paragraph.

One of the topics Merton often touched on in his writing was the distinction between what he called the false self and the true self. I’d like to share with you a short section from New Seeds on what he means by the false self, and then consider how this plays out in our lives and, in particular, in our engagement with social media: Continue reading