Monday, 22 December 2008

Thoughts about the gospel

On the way to work yesterday a couple of fantastic things struck me, related to the gospel. First I was reminded of God’s goodness. Secondly I began to think a bit about a Christian song in which the singers commit to “hail God as King” and what that really means.

So why did I get thinking about God’s goodness? Well, I take the Gosport ferry to Portsmouth each day (yes, even some Sundays) and en route yesterday, surrounded by early-bird Christmas shoppers, I spent a few minutes contemplating Isaiah chapter 1. This important prophet spoke words from God to the nation God had chosen to be his own children, the nation of Israel. First, let’s get some context – and then you will see why God’s words are so fantastic here.

At this point in Israel's history, corruption was rife in Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) and it's clear that the people, and notably their leaders, had forgotten the awesome holiness of God - because they had started appropriating ideas from other nations about how to worship. They must have come to the point where they thought the old rules of temple worship "couldn't really be all that important", when of course they were actually designed to provide atonement for them and remind them of God's power and their relationship with him.

In short, these people were forgetting God, even putting their trust in other gods and worshipping them. So God has called Isaiah to bring them a wake-up call.

What struck me was the mixture of sober warning (we all need this more often than we like to admit) and promises of reward that are in this opening chapter. Isaiah clearly shows how Israel's disobedience hurts God ("the LORD has spoken: 'Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.'" Israel does not even "know" God any more - v2-3). Despite causing the God of the universe anguish by the choices they have made, they are even continuing to do wrong (v5).

As we read on, God shows them their arrogance in assuming a few religious gestures will satisfy him when they come into his holy presence (v12-15). The message is clear: they must turn from wrong and live the right way (v16-17). And as this Israeli stop sign suggests, stopping is an urgent matter!

But here's the staggering thing: despite the enormity of the problem between them and God, God invites them to come back to him, and tells them he will wash them clean - in fact totally spotless and free from sin! (v18) No matter how they have taken for granted his gifts, ignored the ways he wants them to live, and started to worship idols – he still is ready to give them total righteousness before him! How generous is God!

Isn’t this our situation, too? God has worked in history to bring us a Saviour and to make known the blessing we can have in him. Furthermore, he has worked in my life to give me access to the Bible, and to teaching about him, and to churches and Christians of all kinds who have helped me along. He created me and my family and he has brought me up to know him. And yet, how often do I pay him back by ignoring what he wants me to do, or treasuring other things in life more than him, such as my reputation or material things I want to get hold of? The things I do offend him, and my arrogance before him can be appalling (thinking that I am good and worth helping). I know I must stop these wrong ways, although I know I can never make up for all the wrong I've already done.

And yet what is God’s response to all this?
For starters, the gift of righteousness to all who turn to follow him and believe in Jesus. A total removal of my past sin and guilt, because of Jesus. An eternal future, with promises of Jesus continuing to pour out his riches on us, so that our joy will be full. Our God is a breathtaking God, with a heart of the biggest love you will ever find.

So there you have it. A brief look at the gospel from Isaiah. It’s there laid out for us to read and marvel at, and isn't it wonderful? Isn't God wonderful?

And what was my other thought on the way to work? I started thinking about a song we sing at church very occasionally called “I will worship”. To me it seems the perfect “response” song, once we have all had a reading or song or talk highlighting just what Jesus has done on the cross – perfect because it outlines the ways we all must worship: trusting God “alone” (ie. above all others) for the way forward, following and honouring him “as King”, giving to him, praising him (ie showing our thankfulness to him), longing to be more worshipful (recognising our weaknesses) and “bowing” to him (submitting to his ways). Challenging stuff – but then again, what else can we do when faced with such a mighty yet loving, totally wonderful, God?

The future

“Tortured feet break away from threadbare shoes”
- that’s all.
Yellow-parched skin, now brushing against the wind.

Hard-lined mouths which put lives into cruel focus -
Frustrated by answers, and unexpected new managers.

Watery eyes, wistful through the entirety of generation Y -
Find hope to relate again, drawing out vitality through sockets of gold,
Creative minds and legs which bend and reach and go.

Babies stand their personalities up-right, and shine.
Mother’s wisdom cares for them, without strain.
Shout it out: “A family is well again!”

Aching remembered, we cry “Worth it, all worth it!”
Music climbing, broad sounds filling out our clothes,
Activity unhindered, progress never unmade
- people purposed, concentrating, thinking, relaxing;

Rushing of air, as solid trees walk towards one another
- as if, at first.
Hopes that return, from the crown laden down.

The mission of our lives

Mission control, it’s mission control
It’s inward and boxed-up for an age
It’s opinion and advice and working with limits
It’s life or death for the computer screen man

Lift-off, it’s lift-off
It’s a miracle of colour and prestige and dignitaries
It’s a chance for feet to float in a steel womb
Away from earth

Dead space, it’s dead space
It’s the way forward, it’s a rush
Spot a world (far bigger than the feat)
Already there to be used

Landing, it’s touchdown,
Look at that! Those swallowing waves!
It’s a journey as yet barely made;
Human ingenuity does not swerve.


It had wise eyes
Creeping softly
Treading carefully on my chin
Lining up ideas and weighing out feelings

It studied and scrutinised and pinned down my skin
And walled it up in long sheets – or allowed it to flow out a little,
Listening to its shape
With those –eyes.

What was it that it wanted?

Triumphant I flicked away its dreamed presence,
Discarded the hungered look
And moved on.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Our report

Vacancy and poetry:
Ten times the employment rate of brainpower;
Five times held back by the statistics of strangers.

Hunger and management:
A gaping hole without open borders;
A regretful set of administrative errors.

Efficient armageddon:
Doomsayers which stand back and watch the system fail
Say nothing more from their computers

Thus, in conclusion, the action stops.

The above poem is borne from my feelings of frustration over certain politic and social problems I sometimes end up thinking about. Soon, I will be posting some more poems, including one that questions the what kind of progress our society is making (it's always assumed that we are so much better now than we used to be, isn't it?) and another which should clearly let you see where I think hope really lies. Hope you enjoy them and have a happy Christmas!

Fullmetal Alchemist

Ever since watching the movie-like episodes of Batman: the Animated Series on a Saturday morning as a kid, I have been excited about the stories animation can tell (I guess maybe Disney films like The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, Aladdin, The Sword in the Stone, and Toy Story probably helped.) But watching this popular Japanese anime series was something different. It is a 51 episode series, telling one complete story aside from a few unrelated quests and some episodes more based on developing characters. The whole thing has a varied tone, and is (broadly) a fun adventure story – but it really made me laugh, and certain scenes are creepy, incredibly so, for such a colourful story. It deals with some big issues like the loss of family members, the dangers of all-consuming obsessions, and the difficulty of coping with death in general, as well as a background theme of the damage caused by military oppression and racism.

The strong friendship of teenage brothers Ed and Al is a staple element of the formula, and together they leave home (Odyssey-like) to discover the secrets of alchemy, so that they can un-do a past catastrophe which left Al’s soul body-less and grafted to a giant suit of armour. Being essentially a walking ghost with an imposing outer shell makes life difficult for Al (unsurprisingly) and the friendship of the brothers is put to the test in extraordinary ways throughout this fantastic journey. The military characters are also very well-realised and a highlight of the series.

Mostly you will be carried along by the compelling, often tense story into a mix of emotions. Through the main two characters we are encouraged to explore the right and just thing to do when faced with monsters and criminals, outlawed civilians and even those we have brought up or influenced (think Frankenstein’s monster). As you can probably tell, the rich plotlines and interesting themes set this totally apart for me from any other series I’ve seen. And for those who have already seen it, I hear that a new series based on the characters is in the works! Magic!

The movie [pictured above] is a fun follow-up to the series, but only for fans, and even then it's nothing to write home about.

Seven Soldiers of Victory

What strikes you first about this daring project is the art, which is fantastic. As there are different artists working on each of the stories (each one following a different “soldier”), the art varies wildly from huge scenes of bustling energy and detail in overrun Camelot to crime chases in modern New York (think testosterone, grey subways and brute force), to eerie deep blue and turquoise frames which portray a lost village of witches from the Puritan era. I know, it's bizarre.

Once the art has intrigued and impressed you, then you will (probably) be strangely fascinated by the wealth of unusual and horrific ideas in each issue – and its presentation, particularly as it's told through dialogue which flirts with brilliance and yet can be totally bewildering. This latter point leads me to a warning: this four-volume series is clearly not for everyone.

It is an exciting and ambitious read though and Scottish scribe Grant Morrison is clearly pushing the envelope of the comic book medium to see what kind of mature, imaginative and multi-layered stories comics can tell. He takes locations as disparate as the dusty surface of Mars, a billionaire's mansion and a forgotten pirate culture deep underground and uses them to great effect – creating atmospheres of desolation or mayhem, and then injecting into each one confrontations between some of the oddest characters you are likely to find in comics: Big Ed/“Baby Brain” and the Newsboy Army, Gloriana the Queen of Sorrow and Mother of Monsters, and her servant Neh-Buh-Loh the huntsman (a wicked fantasy being who embodies a universe and also happens to look very cool), the former “new gods”, who appear to masquerade as the disabled and homeless, the ghost of a wizard, and a particularly brutal interpretation of Frankenstein (these books are not for the faint-hearted). Highly recommended fun.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

My thoughts on Heroes, volume 3

As one of my favourite programmes, Heroes, presses on into the second half of its third season on BBC2, my thoughts towards the series are contradictory ones. After a great first season and a mixed second one, I can’t quite make my mind up about the new season, which is full of cool moments and some great episodes, but which gives the impression of being without a clear sense of direction.

At some level we know what to expect. We can look forward to more new powers and power-swapping taking place between the main characters, more shocking betrayals and – as a natural result in a series where everyone seems to be as closely related as one giant dysfunctional family – more highly-strung confrontations between our emotional heroes and villains. Hopefully the time-stopping antics of Hiro and Ando will continue as well, because I can’t resist laughing at the pair as they try to be tough and “do the right thing” – no matter how much of a pain the “right thing” is going to be for Ando.

What else can we see coming though? At this point, I wouldn’t mind betting on more visions of the future, which will hopefully clear up how exactly the world is going to be threatened again. But there are some things you can never predict about this series. Will Mr Petrelli survive and just what is he after? And will his sons follow him or not? What will they be able to do to prevent the future disaster and the future murders of Hiro and Peter?

And then there is Sylar. Who knows where his loyalties will lie after most of the cast has tried to kill him, or at least to use him! Will the influence of his newfound family or his friend and lover, Elle, bring out the best in him, as we are beginning to hope, or the worst? Surely one of the best characters (and best-acted), at first I was really unhappy about the direction they took his character at the beginning of this series – but by the time I got to the excellent tenth episode, I was sold. Elle and Sylar’s confrontation shows how far he has come and how willing he is to help those in his position. His voluntary and manly acceptance of her, when she needed acceptance; his powerful demonstration of how he will endure the pain and choose not to kill; his refusal to listen to her pleas for death, because he knows that redemption is possible – this added up to a surprisingly hope-filled and cathartic moment – a chance for the two to reach peace in the midst of the latest chaotic and uncaring plot that surrounds them both. I hope Sylar survives the series!

Of course one thing we all know we are in for more of is Dr Mohinder Suresh’s strange brand of philosophising (or even moralising) about the human experience. His voiceover mainly functions to provide links between the multiple stories going on, and to give the viewer a sense of how characters are feeling and perhaps where the series is heading next. But it is tiring at times, and he does come up with some odd phrases. Armchair wisdom is mixed with evolutionary theory and psychology, and at times we feel with pride we are beginning to grasp something profound. My “Addicted to heroes” Facebook application shows me one quote in which he connects humanity together in some kind of Buddhist-lite divine understanding of the world. What on earth is this series trying to say about people? Other than the obvious assumption: That we have lots of potential as individuals and should work together to make the right choices for a better future.

[Writing that last sentence was unnerving – not only does it sound like every other whole-hearted American message about the way forward for the world, but bare-faced as it stands it is far too simple a view of what will make a good future. Perhaps that’s where the randomness of the way things happen in the series helps to make things less about one ultimate goal, but more about possible options.]

This idea of wielding miraculous powers, naturally given us or passed on through science, is alluring. But the series has shown how power has changed the identity of the characters, through their forced exile or through the things they have done. How can individuals use the abilities or opportunities we have positively, without letting them become obsessions or serving our own ends at the expense of others (see Noah or Suresh)? How will we be safe? The dangers in heroism are clear.

Despite this, we can easily aspire to be like the Heroes, whether this is to be good, or strong, attractive or assertive, successful or honourable, or all of the above. What implications does this have for us? What is praiseworthy about these characters and our desires to be like them, and what is wrong about it?

Positively, we love to follow the story of evil’s defeat and hope for the Heroes to be able to live on. There is a challenge in their good actions that we, too, should not compromise and let evil have its way; a challenge, perhaps, to take hard decisions to fight wrong behaviour or the wrong thoughts in our hearts, and ultimately to find strength in a relationship with God so we are able to give evil no ground in our lives. (Notice the “in the Lord” in Ephesians 6: 10-11 and the God-dependence of King David in Psalm 139:24.) Furthermore, as Nathan and Peter need discernment about how far to trust each other and their parents, we must seek God’s discernment about which advice to follow and which course to take. Who will we be influenced by in the choices we make? More negatively, in our aspiration to be like a “hero” we are selfish and would love to be in the spotlight, or merely to be able to get what we want. We become the centre of our own universe, and those we come into contact with suffer the consequences.

Finally, as the cast of Heroes are often defined by what they do, or, in some episodes, how they feel about what they do, I guess the question is for us: What should define us?