Posts which have to do with my Christian faith.

The Riddle of Strider

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

If you recognise those words, you probably know they refer to Aragorn, or Strider, a key character in The Lord of the Rings.

At the start of this verse, Tolkein cunningly subverts our expectations by altering a well known phrase. We’re all familiar with the saying ‘not all that glitters is gold’, and for years I thought the first line of the above poem was simply a rephrasing of this well worn proverb. But when I looked more closely, I realised that Tolkein has altered the meaning. Rather than saying that not all gold looks valuable, he says that everything that is golden looks as if it isn’t valuable. His phrase is all-encompassing. All that is gold does not glitter. Everything worth having looks worthless, and anything that looks valuable is a fake.

Aragorn is not recognised for who he really is, so he goes by the name of Strider, or Longshanks. Neither seems intended as a compliment, and the locals in Bree where we first meet him don’t trust him at all. He wanders perpetually, never settling, seemingly having nowhere to call his home. But Tolkein warns us not to be deceived by appearances. This traveller has purpose. Not all those who wander are lost.

As the story develops, we see that Aragorn’s age and experience have made him stronger, and his awareness of the past have given him an ability to resist the comings and goings of others. While others around him wither, or are destroyed by frost, Aragorn knows he is the heir of an old, old kingdom. He puts down deep roots into his heritage, the kingdom of his forefathers, and he is able to be sturdy, dependable, and above all, strong.

Having said that, when Frodo first sees a hooded man in a corner of a room, there is nothing to suggest the presence of a king, much less the presence of a long-awaited heir. Here is a man seemingly at a loose end, wandering the earth with nothing to live for, his life nothing more than ash. But from those ashes a fire shall be woken, and a light from the shadows shall spring. The man sitting hidden in a corner, hiding away from the adulation that most kings crave, will one day be the source of fiery light to many.

There is a blade which will bring this about. It is a broken blade, a useless and defeated blade, but a blade which is imbued with resurrection hope. When it is renewed, the crownless wanderer shall settle in the home he had all along, as the rightful king and the one who brings peace.

As Aragorn says, “I am Aragorn, and those verses go with that name.” But it could equally well describe another. There is another king who laid aside his crown and wandered the earth with nowhere to lay his head, but he was not lost. He was old, from before time itself, and he knew the eternal purpose for which he had come. His flame was cruelly extinguished, leaving nothing but ash, yet from that ash awoke a new flame, greater and more terrible than before. The Sun of righteousness rose from the shadow of death, and there was healing in his wings, because, as Aragorn showed, the hands of the king are the hands of a healer. The broken blade of his body was renewed, and once again the crownless is king. Now those who recognise him must follow in his footsteps, wandering the earth, yet they are no more lost than Aragorn. We, like little Aragorns, are moving towards a home where they will be given crowns and will reign. But we merely imitate the One great and true Aragorn, the man Jesus Christ. In his kingdom, the last shall be first, and although the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, in the kingdom of Christ it is certain that all that is gold does not glitter.


He loveth still

Sadly I don’t anticipate that this post will mark the beginning of a golden era of blog posts here, but I wanted to share this before I forget. Quoted below are two verses of a hymn I came across about a week ago. Take a minute or two now to reflect on the words, and what they say about God and us.

In Him is only good,
in me is only ill;
my ill but draws His goodess forth,
and me He loveth still.

‘Tis He who saveth me,
and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me,
I live because He lives.

From “I bless the Christ of God” by Horatius Bonar

Great expectations?

What expectations do you have in life? How do they affect you?

I learnt to juggle when I was around 12 years old, and it didn’t take long. Partly that’s because young people pick up new skills quickly, and partly it’s because juggling isn’t really very difficult. Over Easter I spent a bit of time trying to learn to ride a unicycle, and it was much harder. I suffered from a combination of being almost a decade older, and unicycling being a much more challenging skill to learn.

To give you an idea of the progress I made from a week of regular practice, I have progressed from sitting on the unicycle holding onto two stationary objects to being able to cycle while holding onto a wall for a few feet before falling off. It’s slow progress, but I’m happy with it. Why? Because I read on the internet that unicycling is a difficult skill to learn, and takes a lot of practice. Also, a friend who is able to unicycle told that there was no shortcut which could remove the need to practice. I started to learn with the expectation of a difficult challenge, so when I made a small amount of progress I was pleased about it.

Imagine if my expectations had been different. Imagine I’d expected to be a skilled rider at the end of the week, perhaps learning to perform basic tricks. Imagine if I’d gone to a skate park, and tried unicycling up a ramp. It wouldn’t have ended well for me, that’ s for sure! Having the right expectations was important for how I felt about my progress, and is important for how we feel about life more generally.

What expectations should Christians have of what their lives will be like? Do we expect life as a Christian to be no different from anyone else’s life? Do we expect to radically and rapidly transform into a state of joyous perfection? Do we expect some compromise between the two, or perhaps a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs?

I continually forget what the Christian life is like. I’ve been a Christian for years, but still my expectations get warped out of all reality. I typically find myself making one of two mistakes – either expecting an easy life or expecting life to be so hard I can never progress.

The Christian life isn’t an easy one. Even without any external suffering (and there is no guarantee of freedom from that) there is a constant battle with sin. No Christian is free from it, and only an unhealthy Christian doesn’t keenly feel it. When I forget to expect this, I am discouraged by my frequent failures to live up to my own moral standards, let alone God’s! But when I remember to expect it, I can turn to God for help fighting my sin. I can remind myself that it is God who works in and through me, and it is God who makes me progressively more holy. And I can have joy in the fight.

The opposite mistake could actually be viewed as the flip side of the same wrong expectation. It is remembering that there is a fight to be had, but forgetting to actually fight it! When I forget that progress is to be expected, and expect stagnation, I am essentially surrendering the fight. I despair at my sinfulness, and my helplessness to change it. But when I remember to expect change, I can turn to God for the necessary power to change. While I still acknowledge my weakness and inability to change, I can remind myself of the God who is changing me. And I can have joy in the change.

Getting the right expectations matter. They protect me from expecting too much, and the discouragement which comes when I don’t live up to my own expectations. They protect me from expecting too little, and missing out on progress God is delighted to give me. I need the right expectations. I need gospel expectations.

What expectations do you think are important in your life?

(For the articles which inspired this one, see The secret cause of discouragement and How to turn ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones, both by Joshua Hood.)

A young servant

How can a young Christian serve their church?

I get the impression that young people in churches are sometimes keen to help, but don’t know how. They get put on teams to serve tea, or do other fairly small tasks, and this is great. I think it’s really valuable to be involved in practical service, but I want to suggest there is a real spiritual service open to even the youngest Christians.

In order to serve the church, it is necessary to serve the people within the church. There is no abstract ‘church’ which is somehow distinct from the Christians who meet together. The church is the body of Christ, a united nation. Time and time again, the New Testament speaks of the church in language which is both corporate and personal.

So how can a young person serve their church? They may not be able to preach, or help with regular meetings, but they can serve the people of the church. Serving tea is a great example, but it needn’t stop there. Befriending people is a valuable service to the church. Talking about God’s work in your life is bound to encourage other believers. Asking people for help to understand the Bible will bring the church together. Offering to pray for people will not go unappreciated. The list is almost endless.

A good church should be a loving community of Christians, mirroring the loving community of God. Let us show love to those Christians around us, seeking to build them up and helping them fix their eyes upon Jesus.

If you want to serve your church, serve the people.

Only a famous death will do

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Commodus, talking to Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

Commodus talks to Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000)

I love gladiator. It’s an epic film telling an epic story full of epic quotes set to epic music (spotify link). And like so many good stories, it follows the plot of the greatest story ever told. The true story of the famous death.

It starts with a general. Someone with power. Someone who tells people what to do, and is obeyed. Someone who has a formidable army at his disposal. And the general becomes a slave. He gives up his rights, his authority, his power. He is humbled, even humiliated, and becomes a gladiator. He fights many enemies, but before too long matters come to a head. He defies the emperor.

It’s a striking story, but now we need to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the emperor in the great arena? The final showdown must take place somewhere public, where it will be seen. The emperor seems to take a quick advantage, just as Commodus stabs Maximus. The gladiator dies of the wound.

But the story is not over. We need to know what happens to the emperor. He is defeated, shown to be weaker than the gladiator slave. And the gladiator, killed in the battle, is honoured and we will see him again – but not yet.

The effect is much wider though. His people are liberated, no longer living under the rule of the tyrannical emperor. And that is why we remember his famous death. That is why we have good Friday.

Building me up

The internet has contributed much to the world in which we briefly live. Some is, of course, undesirable to say the least, but there is much good on the internet. For the Christian it is a fantastic resource giving us sermons, articles, blogs, books, and just about anything else we could want to build us up as Christians. Much of it is even free of charge. But is this the way God intends us to be built up in our spiritual lives?

We read nothing of the internet in the Bible, of course, but we read much about the church. We know it is the church which God has ordained to be His vehicle for helping His children grow more like our Saviour Jesus Christ (among other things). It is in a church context that Christians are expected to encourage each other to live holy lives for God

What, I wonder, is the proper place of the internet in Christians growing to be more like Christ? As we are being sanctified before God, how much should we rely on the many wonderful resources afforded to us by it? With so many sermons, blogs and videos available online from mature Christians, it must surely be possible to get more spiritual input in a day than previous generations have had in a month. How much impact such input could possibly have on your life would be quite another matter, of course.

So how much should we listen to online sermons? How many theology articles should be read online? How many Christian blogs should we read? I daresay we can all agree that these would be poor substitutes for hearing our pastor preach on a Sunday, reading theology books and having face to face conversation with mature Christians. But we can have them as well. We should use them as much as possible, for there is no downside to them!

But is that statement true? While it cannot be denied that the use of the internet enables ordinary Christians to access a great variety of teaching and discussion more quickly than has ever been possible before, it could be argued that as quantity has increased, quality has decreased. I am very aware that I really do live in a soundbite generation, feeding off short snippets. Has this propensity of short snappy sayings replaced the time consuming act of Christian meditation, filling the mind with the glory of God for a long period of time? Do we study God’s word in the same depth we used to? I say ‘we’ – I of course have never known a time without the internet, and wouldn’t know how saints acted in years gone by, but this is a serious question. Are Christians such as myself inadvertently reducing our growth in Christ by removing the work of it? It is obvious that we get less out of reading someone else’s analysis of a Bible passage than we do from writing our own – does the same principle hold to more general Christian growth?

The internet has also changed where Christians look for encouragement, edification and rebuke. Once very definitely the preserve of the local church, now that there is free and easy access to all of the above on the internet do we rely on them? I certainly do not think it is a bad thing to grow because of something read, watched, or listened to on the internet, but a more mature believer who knows us can surely do a better job of telling us what we need to hear. It is easy to avoid a rebuke if it is on a stranger’s blog, or a sermon delivered by a pastor you’ve never met. It is easy to reject the advice of someone you don’t know. Is this not one value of a local church member, or pastor, telling you what you need to hear?

Would you remove free will?

What would you do if you were God for a day?

I once spent a few hours asking people that very question. It was a question board I did with the Christian Union at university.

The premise of a question board is simple. There is a board with a question on it, passers by are asked to answer the question, those answers are stuck on the board using post-it notes. It’s a good way to quickly gauge opinions about something, and discuss them if people are interested in doing so. On this occasion the question put people in the place of God. How would people use the power? How would you?

Most of the responses I received have been lost to the mists of an imperfect memory, but one sticks very clearly in the mind. I remember it because I was shocked by it, and because it was by far the most common answer that the people I spoke to had.

I’d remove free will.

At the time I was totally unprepared for that answer. It had simply never occurred to me that people thought they had too much free will. Too little, maybe – after all, plenty of people seem to think of religion as a set of restrictive rules – but too much free will?!

I guess we can think of free will as being free to do what we want to do. I’m sure a philosopher could pick holes in such a simplistic definition (do leave comments to help me refine it), but it’ll do for my purposes. If I have a certain desire, can I satisfy it? Can I do the things which I most want to do?

Is this a type of free will which we have? It seems to me that people do have this freedom, but paradoxically are enslaved by it. We can do what we want, but I’m not sure we can do anything else! We always act according to our desires, and when we deny ourselves it simply shows we have found a greater desire. I may forgo the pleasure of some food, but only the greater pleasure (or at least, what I perceive as the greater pleasure) of losing weight. Or conversely, I might (and often do!) forgo the pleasure of fitness for the greater pleasure of laziness. We are constrained to follow our own free will.

Into this world, Jesus came and offered freedom. Freedom from what? From slavery to our desires which often go against God’s good desires for our lives. That is why Jesus calls you and me “slaves to sin”. How does Jesus give us this freedom? He changes our desires. He cuts right to the heart of the problem, and changes us from being slaves to sin to being slaves to righteousness. We are still constrained, but to live a completely different way. The way that God knows is best for us.

I assume that the people who told me they would remove free will had in mind that they would impose perfection on the world. I assume they would prevent people from doing things which cause suffering. Perhaps they would even force people to worship them. How different the God of the Bible is! Rather than making people act against their will, He changes people from the inside out. The Christian isn’t compelled to do good, but longs to do it. God doesn’t force us to worship Him, but shows us how wonderful He is and our worship flows naturally from it. What a gentle way of dealing with a race of sinful humans!

What would you do if you were God for a day? What do you think of the idea of removing free will?