The God Who Did Not Take On Flesh But Peddled It Instead

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Remember that time when Jesus is talking about how we humans, even though our hearts are hardly pure and devoid of self-interest, are capable of giving good gifts when we are asked. And then He says, well then “how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him!” Then all the disciples become topless Caucasian women with perfectly firm bottoms, photoshopped waistlines (well, let’s be honest, photoshopped everything), adorned with fishnet stockings and silk panties. And Jesus says “now, go make disciples of all nations through lap dances and sexual favours”.

So reads the Gospel according to Ann Summers. Here is the brains behind the advertising campaign ‘Tis The Season To Be Seen, kindly unlocking this highly coded series of images for us:

“The campaign […] uses a strong female lead, to convey the message that the brand wants all women to feel like ‘God’s Gift’, be the centre of everything, and be in control. Each phase showcases key products in the Ann Summers range, matching the changing needs of the consumer over the festive period.”

Except, not so much the centre of, or with positions of control in, the business or political world- because who could take a woman seriously if she was actually clothed? Who could trust her authority if she was not brandishing a whip and handcuffs? Of course, when we talk about women’s strength, we have in mind her thighs, and for “all women”, read women under 25, sizes 6-8, 5”3 and over.  Although once upon a time, “the festive period” was about our need for a Saviour, a way out of the hopeless rut of greed and selfishness we had got into, thankfully in the twenty-first century, we have come to realise that our truest need at this time of year is to be seen as a sexual plaything (and wedgies). What is with all the fuss about the Son of God being bandaged by swaddling cloths, by humanity, by everyone’s prejudices about how a Messiah should look and act? The real question is why Mary wasn’t bandaged in latex.

Jesus’ argument is that our giving reflects our character. So a God who would give perky female physiques, a God who would count as a blessing the white able-bodied, perfectly toned sexual gymnasts among us, would essentially be a pimp. Fortunately, Jesus also tells us that He gives not as the world gives – because, quite frankly, we don’t need any more common or garden misogynists, let alone an omnipotent one.

Praise be to the God whose gift to us is not a sex kitten but Himself. Praise be to the God who is willing to commit Himself to us for all eternity and not just for one night. Praise be to the God who does not compare us unfavourably with digital fantasies, but sees in His Children the reflection of His Son.

 

And as for Ann Summers, perhaps it is your lack of scruples by which I should be most offended. But really, it is your utter lack of imagination and your lack of higher expectations for the tastes and ambitions of both men and women.

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Falling (but not dropped)

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‘You’re going through life quite wonderful, and then suddenly… this’. The words of my grandad who has been thrown into a new and horribly unfamiliar mental and physical environment. In some ways, he is a shadow of his former self. A diet of hospital food and forced abstinence from gin will do that to you. But in other ways, the things that should be clear to us all always- and yet so often are muted by the loud barking of daily life- have been thrown into sharp relief for him. Love, loss, pain and gratitude are to the forefront of his vision. Right where the pages of Ceefax and the Guardian used to be.

My mum and I travelled up across the Peak District and the Pennines to visit him this morning. And if my Facebook newsfeed is anything to go by, I am not alone in thinking the colours of this autumn are more gloriously radiant than I have ever seen them. It’s every hue of gold and copper and auburn out there. And for once, the air was crisp and denuded of its usual cloudy attire. It felt like a message to one like me who grasps at every strategy under the sun to control all aspects of life, even if it means pre-emptively stripping the trees bare rather than be taken aback and disappointed. It felt like a message that- and forgive me for using the American terminology- there’s grace and beauty in our Falls.

I can’t shut my eyes to the inevitability of literal and figurative winters. I cannot bloom perennially. But in all seasons, I can choose to see love, receive love, and give love. For all my blustering attempts at self-preservation cannot compare to the rest and majesty of leaning into God’s strength.

Jeremiah 31:25: “For I satisfy the weary ones and refresh everyone who languishes.”

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A Prophetic Inspector Calls

I am pretty late to An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley- it’s the A Level English Lit staple that I missed out on in favour of 1930s Brighton. But thankfully there is the BBC to bring me back up to speed, culturally speaking. It’s an exceptional play, centred on the revelation that each member of the well-respected Birling family have abused their nouveau riche privilege in small, apparently harmless ways, that have all contributed to the suicide of a beautiful but isolated working-class girl. They have fired her or had her dismissed, seduced her and cast her aside, got her pregnant, or denied her charity. And they have thought nothing of it. But with each act, she has been made increasingly desperate, until she has nowhere else to turn, and she takes her own life. Of course, it wasn’t their hands around her neck, and yet they remain responsible. The play’s question is how then will they deal with their newfound awareness that selfishness has a cost, and that since their stories are interwoven with countless others, that cost is a human one.

I wish I could say that I was moved by the play’s artistic quality alone. But what really got my guts churning was the fact that the story stretches not ninety  minutes but two thousand years. That sweet, disadvantaged beauty is Christ. And the snooty, self-centred bunch? That’s me. Because, sure, I wasn’t Judas, Pilate or the Roman centurions. But I might as well have been- it was my sin that took Jesus to that place of utter rejection and humiliation, where he was truly forsaken.

That part I can deal with painlessly. I shouldn’t be able to, but I can- it takes psychological effort to switch off autopilot when I receive communion. It’s the same for the Birlings: they can all look grief-stricken when they’re confronted by the inspector. But then they can push their feelings of guilt aside and concentrate on the more pressing business of covering up their shame. Only two realise that simply everything about their lives must change in order to make amends. They have to become repulsed by everything about their old life, and see every inch of it laced with their guilt. Then they have to be prepared to not just make small adjustments here and there, but forsake every well-trodden pattern of thought and behaviour. They have to step into the unknown for one who is no longer physically present, but to whom they remain beholden. (Oh crumbs does that sound unnervingly familiar…)

So it wasn’t being imaginatively caught up in the story that got me so worked up. It was the terror that maybe I don’t stand on the right side of the Birling family. Maybe I’m better at polishing up the externals than I am at accepting that I am a truly new creation and the old man really is dead and buried, as Paul says. Maybe I play down the importance of the most world-shaking event in history, in order to keep within my self-centred comfort zone. It is maybes like that which jolt me out of shrugging my shoulders at the cross.

Inspector Goole:

“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.”

1 Corinthians 12:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit….21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

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Y’er Off The Edge of the Map, Mate: Here There Be Pirates

As awkward, wannabe-punk teenagers, my best friend and I were massively into the Playstation 2 game Tony Hawks’ Underground. Although we played it most Friday nights, we kinda sucked. So instead of climbing through the levels and completing the game in one fell swoop, ‘we’ just skated around each town a little bit aimlessly. I knew fake New Jersey like the back of my hand, including the invisible walls beyond which thou shall not pass. If you tried to break out into the big wide world of uncoded virtual reality, there was the sound of a thwack, a message on the screen like ‘this is your brain on drugs’ and your character got dropped back into the heart of things, robbed of your running high score. Very 1984.

Sorry for that detour down memory lane. But I realised as today I move away from every pattern and every person I know, that I’ve been staring at the future as if it’s one of those invisible fences around the skate parks. As if, because I don’t know what to expect, the coding must have run out. As if, staring into an amorphous blur, I’m about to be cut loose, or repelled back to where I started with some mocking phrase on the screen like ‘do you even know God’s will for your life?!’

In reality, there is no uncharted territory for the One whose perspective is clearest and most constant. Nor are there boundaries to the love as He lavishes it. There is not a single day on which God’s grace does not unfold. That’s true whether you’re staring into the foulest or sweetest of weeks- in both, He loves us, through Christ, the same; in neither does He tempt us. And if I’ve got it into my noggin that my not knowing the future means my not being known in the future- and known by the Lord  and relentless lover of all mankind- then maybe God is telling me to be brave so that He can prove me wrong. Because there’s only one person on earth who has sought God and come against a No Entry sign: Jesus on the cross. He accepted that utter rejection so that nothing- not death or demons or my bad decision-making- could pluck me out of God’s cradling hand.

Romans 8:38-9: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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We’re All Nomads Here

We’re an up-and-outta-here generation. Or maybe it’s Cambridge that skews my perspective. It’s a town that breaths deep from its diaphragm: its tummy inflating and contracting, taking in tourists and day-trippers, visiting scholars and students, and then breathing them out again (almost always in the direction of London). After four years, I’m about to leave the comfort of a town in which I know the one-way streets, the cheapest places to get coffee, the shortcuts and the summer evening sun-spots. More to the point, I’m about to leave a treasure-chest of faces who over the past year have watched my togetherness unravel, and never once cringed. The thought of not seeing my housemates and our hotchpotch circle of fellow disciples makes my stomach churn as if I woke up to find myself alone a hundred miles deep into the Yorkshire moors.

Once upon a time, I fully expected to be a go-where-the-flow-takes-me twenty-something. Competitive job market, dispersed family, finally working out how Skype works- not staying put seemed like the default. After all, if The Proclaimers would walk 500 miles for their sweetheart and Vanessa Carlton 1000 miles, clearly true love meant going to another continent in order to make a passionate declaration that you’d walk right back for the one you had left behind.  The only obstacle, highlighted by Tony Christie/ Peter Kay, would be if one had to incessantly ask directions on such an odyssey. There’s an appealing potential for re-invention that comes with moving to a new place (as if I ever was capable of such imaginative self-deception in the first place…). And in my more self-sufficient moods, an okey-kokey lifestyle seems to promise the ability to keep everyone at an arm’s length. Which, in turn, means protecting myself from feeling abandoned, or worrying about whether people are bored with me yet.

But this year has been steadily exposing the aridness of keeping myself to myself, and how much I need people to not be convinced by any of my facades. So the thought of flitting around has lost its allure. Whenever there is a christening or wedding, we as the body of believers covenant to uphold each other in their walk with God- I don’t like the thought of having made those promises, and then moving so I won’t be able to see them through. I want to watch the texture of the relationships in my church thicken and their flavour heighten as we see each other through the ebb and flow of life. I want to model and see modelled God’s steadfastness among His people, rather than us more resembling a University society holding members for three years at most. I want small-talk to be far outweighed by to-the-heart questions. So maybe the nomadic lifestyle of awkward handshakes and asking myself ‘do they think I’m weird’ seventeen times a conversation isn’t for me. And yet, it is a matter of days away…

This is normally the part where I give you ‘the happy ending’. But actually, it isn’t mine to give (because it isn’t fully felt). As physical appearances go, I will be living in a place of uncertainty for a couple of months at least. If left to my own devices, I would be clinging to my mum’s ankles and asking her to stay with me ‘til I’m 48. But there is a deeper certainty that endures whatever the apparent indication of circumstances, and however wavering my will:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139:7-12

We can choose to rejoice in God, even if our emotions are lagging behind, because God’s acts of salvation and strengthening tend to go beyond the realms of our imagination anyway. Mine is a divided heart; Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). And His days as a wandering preacher are behind Him: now He reigns with God the Father, His presence filling the heavens and the earth. I think that includes south of the M25….

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Green Fingers and Jazz Hands

640x560_11490_Ent_s_2d_fantasy_creatures_ent_picture_image_digital_artIt was the iceberg of weeds. The other day I was weeding our jungle of a back garden, and merrily ripping out the gangly pests that had roots that barely scratched the surface. Overall, I was feeling like a green-fingered boss. Until I met my biennial arch nemesis.   For the sake of a tiny stem and two leaves, there was, beneath the surface, an Ent-like structure. My little trowel and I kept squirreling deeper and deeper, but its roots just kept on going. On account of my stubbornness, the wrestle didn’t end until I landed with a thump on my back as I prised the little whatsit out.

Spending time in the garden made me think that all churches should spend a Sunday amidst greenery before they start preaching on Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom. Because Jesus was always drawing from the agricultural world around him to describe the Kingdom of God to His disciples. But, more at home with the sterile two dimensions of cyberspace and the feel of touch screens rather than soil, I think some of their power can be lost on us millennials. (Insert scholarly qualifications on the danger of nostalgia here). When I hear the word ‘fruitful’, it is through the filter of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, rather than as the wind-rustle of vineyards. So whenever I read that we should be ‘bearing fruit’ for Christ, then my knees start to shake and pride is quick on the heels of insecurity. To ‘prove’ I’m a Christian, I worry, I better have authored three devotional books, have under my belt a bajillion mission trips to places I’ve not yet heard of, and a theology PhD to boot. Which would all be wonderful, if it came out of praying each day that God would help me serve Him where I am and with what I have. But when it is the result of fear of God and other people, it means I am metaphysically isolated, living with a finger-wagging, furrowed-brow deity. And no one needs that.

Being a people of the resurrection sounds like it should be super dramatic. Like those ‘5 tips to lose your belly fat’ ads all over the internet with pictures of women before and after they wrapped themselves in cling film or ate three gallons of blueberries or whatever they did (futter mutter, futter mutter), I want a nicely quantifiable, line-graphable change in myself and everything I work on. (For the record, those women are either breathing in, or it’s not the same person- but I digress). But quite honestly, God probably turns his nose up at some of the show-stopping feats performed in His name. The Kingdom takes all our expectations and norms, and subverts them. So if it looks like the winners and the loudest, brashest types are coming out on top, and that the top resembles Hollywood, while the voiceless are lost and disparaged, then there’s something amiss. Those works are like those gargantuan, shallow-rooted weeds. They’re the fur-coat-and-no-knickers of the Christian world; the equivalent of mainstream celebrity culture but with a Christian label. And maybe it’s the little shoots that reach practically down to Australia, but that no one really notices which truly delight Him. Because they’re little gestures, sacrifices and struggles done in the nooks and crannies of our daily life, but done knowing that Christ’s strength overcomes our weakness, and that His power can multiply the fruit of our efforts a hundredfold.

And sometimes, it is only after the ‘after’, that we know the ‘before’ was in need of resurrection and redemption at all. It’s not obvious to me in the ‘before’, for instance, that self-preoccupation is spiritual death until I feel more like my truest self by focusing on others (and oh crumbs do I forget this every other minute). It’s not obvious to me that worrying doesn’t lead to greater control over every eventuality until I loosen my grip a little and see God do a better job than I ever could. I won’t learn to be gentle until I stop associating attention with significance. I won’t have peace until I trust that when God looks on me, He sees Christ, and if He no longer condemns me, then I don’t need to worry if anyone else does.

Those are the leaves I want, even if they’re discreet. And so I have to pay more attention to my footing than to my jazz-hands.

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God: He’s Just That Into You

A common criticism I make of myself is that I am in love with the idea of love. Take every female character except Scarlett Johansson (skinny-dipping, yoga-teaching, would-be adulteress doesn’t quite sum me up) out of He’s Just Not That Into You, and that’s me. It’s pretty embarrassing to see your common thought patterns effectively labelled ‘REALLY UNHEALTHY AND IRRATIONAL- WILL ONLY LEAD TO EXCESSIVE COOKIE DOUGH CONSUMPTION’, but I’m making public that confession because I’m probably not alone. Even my narcissism doesn’t quite stretch to thinking Hollywood decided to explore neuroses over which I have a monopoly. Not yet anyway. Making romantic love an idol seems to be a sure-fire way to get egg on your face if you have people skills like mine, or feeling jaded and truly alone if you get far enough into a relationship for some crisis of candour to call a halt to the champagne and strawberries honeymoon feeling. There’s a reason RomComs nearly always end at the point of a couple getting together: there’s reassurance and ego-boosting in the recognition of mutual attraction. There’s fewer feel-good vibes in negotiations about who cleans the loo and who goes to the supermarket for drain unblocker. Which, if you think about it, is kind of depressing- our dreams centre around one Kodak moment in our mid-20s, and the rest is… tumbleweed. So being in love with the idea of a drop-everything-to-run-into-each-other’s-arms-from-opposite-ends-of-the-platform moment (or eros for short) does warrant me sighing irritatedly at myself. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be in love with love- true sex-is-beside-the-point-because-I-love-you-for-your-emotional-baggage-and -when-mascara-is-all-over-your-face-and-even-though-I-don’t-have-to-like-you-right-now-cos-sometimes-you-are-an-absolute-idiot-but-I-will-still-stick-by-you- that sort of love.

Paul writes: ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ For the longest time, I assumed this was a bit of a pre-emptive telling off to be used at weddings. I thought it was a proverbial stick to later hit each other over the head with: “if you really loved me you wouldn’t tell me to hurry up because we’re going to be late what with love being patient and all” or “you totally have to trust that I didn’t finish the Ben&Jerry’s because love believes all things so nerrrr”.  If wedding guests were less enamoured with the beautiful language, this would probably make them awkwardly gulp- because who is any of those things throughout one day let alone a marriage? But Paul is saying love is and does these things, not us, and that our job is to open our arms up to love. The patience, gentleness, contentment come by wrapping ourselves in love, and not before. Try making yourself patient, and doing it without being proud of yourself for managing it and contemptuous of everyone else who doesn’t cut the mustard. Making virtues out of laws works as well as chocolate teapots.

So I think Paul is billboarding love so that we are grabbed heart and soul by it. He’s dealing with a church fraught with sexual immorality, incest, factions, power games and ego. So we can put it this way: I get it- the attention, the applause, the sub-identity- I get that it scratches an itch you all have. But aren’t you tired of being afraid of losing your reputation or your position as top-dog? Is the jealousy and in-fighting glazing your eyes with cynicism? Do you miss what brought you together in the first place? Can you remember what it felt to know the purity of the truth that God is love? Allow me to remind you of its unique beauty, and let’s see if afterwards you still want to be climbing greasy poles and posing on pedestals, instead of kneeling at the foot of the cross.

If I’m not enraptured with love as Jesus embodies it, then I will inevitably set my heart on something else- like being right all the time, being likeable (in Facebook terms, and in that old-fashioned sphere called real life), or eating seventeen superfoods a day. And all that is prone to tarnish, to have me sharpen my claws at the threat of ‘competition’, or make me your local Waitrose’s resident Faustus. Quite frankly, I choose to be in love with love instead.

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