Friday, 29 April 2011

Top 3 Significant Royal Weddings in English History

Congrats to Wills & Kate, very happy for them both! By the time the confetti has been swept from the Mall this will have probably been the biggest TV event in history - a day where we throw off the lingering heaviness of post colonial shame & remember how to be Great Britain once again. A day where we suddenly feel confident in celebrating our identity in one giant street party before the world's eyes. A day where our ever shrinking planet shares in a truly global, tribal event.

So it is a genuinely significant day for us all, not least the happy couple. Whilst Wills & Kate may wake up tomorrow to the realisation that their ascension to the throne may take another 40 plus years, we can take a look at the top 3 Royal marriages which have had true & lasting significance.

In reverse order!

3/ William & Mary
William, Prince of Orange, married Mary Stuart on 4th Nov 1677. The Dutch Stadtholder was actually marrying his first cousin, & she just happened to be the daughter to James, next in line to the English throne should his big brother Charles die...following so far?
Charles of course did die & James II, a Catholic ascended the throne. The reason this particular Royal wedding was so important is that the daughter & son in law arrived by boat in Devon with 15000 troops the day after their 11th Wedding anniversary! James fled under pressure & vacated the throne which was taken up jointly by William & Mary.
The settlement they agreed with Parliament meant that no genuine Monarch would ever rule again in England. The Divine right of Kings was diminished by powers ceded to government, & the curious compromise of a democracy with a Monarch began to emerge. Here was one wedding which has consequences which still resonate today.

2/ Edward & Mrs Simpson
OK, he had already abdicated by the time the former Edward VIII married twice divorced Wallis Simpson in 1938, but this wedding is the reason we are all having a bank holiday in front of our TV screens today.
Quite simply, Edward's younger brother George VI took the throne & a whole new family line of Royals, including our very own Elizabeth, Charles & Wills came into play.
Even more significantly, without this strange episode in history, Colin Firth would have been denied his Oscar for the King's Speech!

1/ Henry & Catherine of Aragon
This has to be the most important marriage in English history, but for it's untimely ending rather than the many years of relationship. So much has been written about the monster Monarch Henry, but had his marriage to devout Catholic Catherine been sustained we must wonder whether England would have ever entered the Reformation? Our 500 years of history since, our odd democracy & compromised church/state relationship would surely look so very different. Our architecture, our Colonial spread & impact in competition with the Spanish, our national characteristics - all changed for ever because this marriage did not last.

Wills & Kate, enjoy many happy years waiting for your turn without too much burden of history!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Grace Identity

Identity theft is big business. If you are looking to diversify as a criminal mastermind into a growing market - ID theft is the next big thing! The UK government estimate the cost to our economy from this kind of 'victimless' crime is over £1.2 billion a year. The real figure is probably higher with so many smaller crimes remaining unreported. No wonder Ministers have contemplated allocating budgets they don't really have to bring in national ID cards.

What is it about our identity that is so important, so precious? The age old philosophical question, 'Who am I?' has been debated over the generations by all the great minds. A Google search on that phrase today will necessitate you trawling through a mammoth 15,300,000 hits. Last year the Science Museum in London opened a permanent interactive exhibition dedicated to the question 'Who am I?' Or if you want to explore lower culture, check out Jackie Chan's 1998 movie classic of the same name!

In the scriptures, the Apostle Paul gives us his take. ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ This from a man whose earlier years were characterised by the kind of religious hatred & bigotry that we today associate with terrorism & race hate attacks. In the early days Paul never questioned his ID or purpose. He was sure, a zealot, a man who knew the answers & never stopped to ask questions. Such certainty about the rightness of his identity led him to persecution & murder.

David Hamilton was a Loyalist Terrorist in Ulster during the hight of the troubles. Hardened in his identity & his cause, he was surprised by his very own Apostle Paul experience. In his own words: 'I had an experience of God that turned my life right side up. I was locked up one night in my cell, as usual and I looked over at my bed and there was a Gospel tract. My cell mate said, 'What's that?'

"I held it up and read it, rolled it up in a ball and threw it out the window. Fifteen minutes later and suddenly this thought came into my head. 'David, it's time to change, become a Christian.'

"I knew something had happened from the very first day I became a Christian. There was definitely a heart change in me. There was an IRA man, heard them all [the other prisoners] laughing at me in the canteen and I had had a fight with the same man two weeks before in the prison laundry, I went over to him, and said, 'I'm sorry about the fight we had.'

"He spat in my face. I had no feeling of any kind to retaliate or attack him. I just smiled at him and wiped the spittle off my face. From that day to this I've never had a fight, today I'm a pastor in a church in Manchester."

What is this grace that it can take a religious bigot & terrorist & cause him to say, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’? Grace & forgiveness changes everything, even the most deep rooted parts of our identity are transformed, made brand new.
Paul got it right when he acknowledged this change to a new man only comes in burning every bridge & following the one man who really knew who He was. 'If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation, the old has gone & the new has come.'
The kind of transformation in our identity which allows a terrorist to wipe spit from his face & smile can't be discovered at a Museum,through a Google search or even from a Philosopher - But by looking at the Man who was spat at, rejected & killed because of His identity as the Son of God. Now, by the grace of God, I am what I am.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Dead works, Damien Hirst & the macabre scent of formaldehyde

I was drawn & repelled in equal measure by the various animal body parts that used to be kept suspended in big dusty jars of formaldehyde on the high shelf in our biology lab at school - a jar of eyes bobbing around as you took it down & shook it like a snow globe had an endless, macabre fascination value for this schoolboy.

Damien Hirst must have seen a gap in the market. His horrible, provocative art collections of entire cows & other animal parts in formaldehyde has sold at auction for over £100 million. Essentially a collection of bits stolen from my school biology lab, this is quite a feat to pull off. I wish I had thought of it first instead of limiting myself to stealing the cow eyeballs one at a time to put in Toby Pass's lunch box!

This trade in literal dead works also blights the contemporary church today. We like to think that we are safe from dead religion & ritual - These old ways are the preserve of the tired denominations, those who display their formaldehyde jars of pennance, lenten fasts, saints, the rosary et al in the hope that they might get right with God. The truth is that it is far easier to see religion & deadness displayed in other contexts & cultures than our own. This week, I have had ointment applied to my eye after removing a wood chip. We perhaps need to take the log from our own eye as someone once taught us -we maybe need to wake up to the creeping danger of dead works on display in a contemporary church near you & me!

Church history teaches us that most breakthrough, pioneer movements become their opposite within a generation or two. Methodist, Salvationist, Pentecostal - take your pick, they have all collected their fair share of jars full of dead works. If Jesus can say to a New Testament Church in Sardis way back in the beginning, 'You have a reputation for being alive, but really you are dead!' then we ought to sober up & take a good look at ourselves.

Dead works creep up on us in all kinds of ways. Other than a shock artist like Damien Hirst, nobody deliberately sets out to create a dead work. But unwittingly we find ourselves immersed in them. Next time you find yourself saying, 'But we've always done it that way', or wondering if anyone remembers why it is that you are gathered this sunday morning - wake up & smell the formaldehyde!
The best antidote to the whiff of old age around our churches is the aroma of fresh faith, vibrant hope, total trust, absolute obedience, deep Christ like love - where such fragrance is present, the spread of deadness has been halted, indeed, here there is new life & health. Someone open a window in here & let's get started!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

No vintage classics: 5 books you must invest in!

There has been a lot of noise over the last week in blogs & chatrooms about the Orange Inheritance prize for vintage classic literature. In short, which book out of all the millions written would you pass down to the next generation? There wasn’t much on the list that took my fancy, Thomas Hardy apart.

The problem with all these 'Desert Island discs' moments is our inherent human dishonesty, allied with our desperate need to impress people. When asked which book has changed our lives, we lie in the face of the uber cool culture police & spout a list of books we feel we ought to read, or at least would feel good about being run over with it open on our kindle! The harsh reality is that most of the really cool stuff in films, music, books & popular culture generally is (say it quietly) a little bit boring!

Have you noticed all those facebook apps that do the rounds asking you how many of the top 100 books or films you have read or seen? They fall into the same trap – we can’t possibly look stupid in front of our 1000’s of unreal facebook friends so we tick ‘yes’ to Dostoevsky when we would really rather curl up with Catherine Cookson & a family sized bar of Galaxy! This Emporors New Clothes approach helps no one, least of all those who just want to enjoy reading or be provoked, stirred or stretched by a good book.

I’m often asked for book recommendations – this alone is a strange one to handle, not wanting to impose my eclectic taste for police crime thrillers & theology on anyone else! If I had to choose only 5 books which every Christ follower should have on their shelf, & invest some time in actually reading – I would highlight the following Note – I’ve made an assumption that a good translation of the bible is already in your possession!

1/ Systematic Theology – Wayne Grudem
Everyone needs to buy at least one big theology book in their lifetime, & if you buy this one, you won’t need another. Quite simply, no one has put it all together in such a straightforward manner & so thoroughly as Grudem has done here. To do so for a modern readership without any of the language or cultural differences that slow us down with the older versions makes this an investment that will be invaluable for years to come. I’m still dipping into mine most mornings almost 20 years on from purchase.

2/ Surprised by the Power of the Spirit – Jack Deere
Again if you are looking for just one book which sets out a clear doctrine of the Holy Spirit & tracks the path which our generation has come down to get there – this book is the one. Still fresh, still thorough, still deeply biblical yet engaging in the narrative of Deere’s surprise encounters with a God he thought he already knew.

3/ The Spreading Flame – FF Bruce
Every believer needs to understand our roots, where we have come from, & to see that most of what we encounter today has been around in some form or another before. Bruce’s masterful retelling of the spread of Christianity in the early years will never lose its relevance for this reason.

4/ Revival – Brian H Edwards
You must have a good book on Revival. Preferably have many, but if you can only buy one, this is the best all rounder. There are countless others which will give more detailed accounts of certain times & eras, but Edwards overview & thoughtful analysis brings it head & shoulders above the rest of the pack.

5/ Operation World – Jason Mandryk
This is no dusty textbook. You will have it down from the shelf every day as you grow in your heart for the nations & the spread of the Kingdom. This incredibly well researched book which began as a labour of love for Patrick Johnstone of WEC decades ago, has been updated recently. There are better text books on God’s heart for the nations, better missionary biographies – all of which will do you good – but nothing will get you engaged in prayer & action like Operation World.

These are 5 books from amongst the many which do have a 'heritage' feel to them & I would be glad to pass onto the next generation.