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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Power of Roots - a film review of "Lion"

Image result for lion film"Lion" or "La la Land?" 
The choice was between "La La Land" or "Lion". A film based on a real life story always wins the day for me, unromantic as that may be!

The title "Lion" gives no insight into the film - and indeed could put some people off - if they thought the film was about some feline species. The title is taken from the name of the main character, Saroo, who one day learns that his name means "lion."

This is a wonderful story and a great film.....

Miles from Home
As a little boy in India, Saroo ends up lost, separated from his irresponsible brother Guddu, on a train and then more than a thousand miles from home. At the other end of the journey he gets picked up by a government adoption agency (none of the film is complimentary towards the way children are treated in India, I'm afraid; Saroo only narrowly misses being trapped in the sex trade), and ends up being adopted in Australia. He grows up as a fully blown Aussie, surf board and all. His new parents are devoted to him and under their love he flourishes as a young man eniding up in the world of business.

As he grows into his teens, and it seems especially when he falls in love, memories of his first family  rise to the surface and grow, until his one passion in life, is to find  his original family and return to them. He imagines them looking for him every day and can't bear that thought: he must tell them he is alive. 

One day, using his childhood memories, Saroo discovers the aerial image of his village and house on Google Earth (did they fund this film?) He sets out alone to return. Of course things are different. Guddu, the brother who had negligently left him at a railway station for a while, has been killed by a train, but he finds his mother and sister and is emotionally reunited with them.

The film finds its resolution here: home is where childhood unfolds.

The power of roots
Childhood memories shape us  because what we experience when we enter the world is imprinted upon our minds. Early memories and experiences are seared into our brains.

How vital it is, then, that parents care for their children well in these early years. Along with Saroo, the loving Australian couple adopted another lad who had been abused as a child - and that experience scarred him for the whole of his life. Abuse in the first years of life scars deeply, and perhaps irreversibly. 

In the spiritual realm it is much the same. When someone is just converted they need the highest levels of care and love in order to grow into a strong healthy follower of Christ. I know Christians whose whole future Christian life was messed up because they had poor examples of "mature  Christians" in their first tender, impressionable years of walking with God. Perhaps this side of heaven, they will never fully recover.

Jesus sets the example
Jesus sets the example - he spent many many long hours with just 12 men loving, teaching, protecting them from false teachers and setting an exemplary life before them.   This can't be done "once on a Sunday" or "in a crowd" but requires intense -  even daily - attention and care.

Marred by fornication
Tragically, this film, like so many others of our day is marred by the sin of fornication. Saroo has a girlfriend and the viewer needs to know he is sleeping with her without being married to her. No Christian should fail to notice these common movie sins, no Christians should "get used to sin". All sex outside of marriage is sinful.

The Ultimate Home
Saroo does not really find peace. In fact going back to his roots has made the situation worse: now he has two families, two roots, one in Australia and one in India: which one should he spend his days with? The idea that ultimate security can be found in our birth family - or in family of any kind - will always leave us empty, for families come and families go and mankind was never designed to find ultimate rest in earthly families.

God placed Adam and Eve in a garden to be with himself.  God was always meant to be our home, God is the end of the journey, heaven  our ultimate home. To look for ultimate happiness in any earthly community will always - must always considering how we have been made - lead to futility and emptiness.

Jesus said "Come to me... and you will find rest for your souls..."

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Infinite Gap - a book review

Reading for Genesis
Preachers need to read around a subject and strive to understand the thinking of the world their flock are exposed to. Hence as part of my preparation for sermons in Genesis, I read a book which is in tune with the spirit of the age which is - "there ain't much difference between animals and humans". (Of course, to be truly in the spirit of the age I would have said "there ain't much difference between the human animal and other species").

Frans De Waal is a primatologist  - he studies primates - an order in the animal kingdom. He clearly loves animals and has spent thousands of hours observing and "testing" them. This is both an advantage and a problem. The advantage is that you know the animals well, the disadvantage that you may be blinded by familiarity.

De Waal is not saying that animals and human are on the same plane, but he thinks that the gap is fast closing. As more and more experiments and observations are completed the wonderful abilities of animals are pouring in. So far, so good.

A labelling problem
The problem is however first a labelling problem. When De Waal talks about apes or crows using tools he is talking about an ape using a stick to access insects - at most using different kinds of simple instruments to access bee honey. When we talk about using tools, we are talking about a totally different world. For example, the hammer, a very simple tool, requires an incredibly complex series of steps to fabricate it. First we must mine ores from the ground (metallurgy, mining, smelting, fire-making) then we take the raw metal and forge it into a useful shape by sophisticated methods which require other pre-made tools - castings, forging anvils, etc. Then we decide that a wooden handle would be better than a metal one (because of the "give" "elastic" "shock absorbing" properties - quite a profound thought process) and then we work out a way to fix the handle to the head, so that it does not fly off and injure anyone (again forethought). This complicated process is what "tool making" means when used in the human context - and all we are talking about is a simple hammer, not a lathe or a milling machine. This fatal labelling error runs right through books like this. Phrases like "self-awareness", "memory", "emotions" when applied to the animal world mean always incredibly simple things, but when applied to the human world, mean unbelievably complex things.

A language problem
Ultimately it is language - complex and creative and vast - that so obviously separates us from the animal world. Some animals can communicate a predator warning cry that distinguishes between a leopard, eagle or snake, but no animals can communicate their thoughts about the past or hopes for the future, or one million other things. 

And so, in the strangest of twists, De Waal's book manages to demonstrate the very opposite of what he sets out to prove.  The abilities of animals he piles up are so profoundly simple, one simple act upon another, that collectively they demonstrate the chasm between man and beast. We never hear of apes putting together an orchestra. No dolphin quiz programmes. We never hear about crows arranging a film festival. No animals read books, discuss philosophy, make plans to terraform mars or climb mount Everest. In every experiment and in every observation the actions of his wonderful animals are so so simple.

The reason for the blindness
The reason why good men like De Waal and others are so blind to the chasm between us and the animals is because they labour under a world-view that demands there to be no chasm. Evolution hates chasms but loves gently ascending slopes. It is inconceivable to the evolutionist that a creature exists with absolutely no counterpart in any other part of the animal world. And so facts are bent upwards (if they pertain to animals) or bent downwards (when pertaining to man). 

Raymond Tallis
Before I read a book by a primatoligist, I first go to the index and bibliography. If Raymond Tallis's "The Aping of Mankind" is not there, I am immediately suspicious. Tallis - an atheistic evolutionary scientist, not a Christian - exposes the attempts to exalt animal or dethrone man (the pincer movement aimed at "aping mankind"). His book has never been refuted or bettered: make it your next read.

We thank De Waal for his commitment to the animal world. We love the stories, we believe them. But every single one of them prove the exact opposite of what he hoped they would show: all of them demonstrate how simple animals are compared to the majestic creature that God made us to be.

Why not ditch the paradigm?
The most sensible thing to do would be to ditch the paradigm of evolution if it is not able to explain the gap. Just say - "the gap is so wide that gradual evolution cannot be true." The real reason men and women will not do this is because if they acknowledge a God behind the chasm, if they acknowledge that we are made by God in his glorious image, and this is why we are so much greater than the animals, then we also have to admit that we are all accountable to him, that he is our King - and that we will not have!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Wonderful Day in Cambridge

The Reason for the Wonderful Day
I spent a wonderful Saturday in Cambridge recently, at Hughes Hall (one of the colleges of university).  Wonderful, because I was attending a conference called "Beyond Materialism"organised by the Centre for Intelligent Design. It was a gathering of some of the most important western experts in the new science (yes, science) of intelligent design. It was a joy and a privilege to listen to these humble giants. I include among the giants men like Stephen Meyer, Gunter Bechley, Douglas Axe, and women like Ann Gauger.

In a word, ID says that science must always run from evidence to the best explanations. If there are two possible explanations for some phenomenon, then the one that best explains the phenomena is the one we must adopt. This is common sense, and it is true science.

Materialism and ID
Tragically, a strangle-hold theory has become the reigning paradigm in explaining "origins" of all kinds. This reigning paradigm, starting with Darwin, does not arise out of the evidence but arises out of philosophy. Materialism starts with the premise that there is no prior mind or intelligence in the universe. It says that all there is is matter, "In the beginning matter". Materialism - without a jot of evidence or supporting arguments - posits the non-existence of intelligence as a founding principle of exploration and examination. Not surprisingly, if you don't put cinnamon in the cake at the beginning, you don't get cinnamon cake out of the oven.  Materialist scientists don't find evidence for God anywhere because he's not even a possibility in their work, at the start.

On the other hand, ID experts suggests that if we find evidence of intelligence in the universe we should not be afraid to admit it and acknowledge it. Only a bigoted mind would exclude such a common sense approach.

Evidence for Intelligence
Here are four evidences for intelligence in the universe:

(i) The origin of the first cell. More like, "The origin of the first protein." Materialists live in the hope that somehow we will be able to come up with a "just so" pathway from inorganic matter to living cells. Darwin could be excused for such nonsense because he was ignorant of the vast complexity of a single living cell. We who know better, know too that there is no way a cell can come about by chance and law. Now that the time-frame of the earth has been limited to a few billions of years we can do the maths: there is not enough time to come up with one simple useful protein (one of the molecular machines in a cell), let alone a cell with hundreds of interconnected proteins working in harmony with each other.

This is not one of those "one day when we know more" gaps, it is a fundamental, statistical, fact: proteins cannot arise by chance (let alone unbelievably more complex cells). It takes intelligence.....

(ii) The rapid origin of all living things. Gunter Bechley demonstrated from the fossil record that whenever new organisms appear they do so "instantaneously" (in geological terms). The most common example of this is the Cambrian Explosion where some 40 body types appear all of a sudden in the fossil record with no previous ancestors. But Gunter showed us that the Cambrian Explosion is just one of many such explosions, all of which follow the same pattern in the fossil record. How come they appear abruptly? Perhaps........?

(iii) The fine tuning of the universe.  The laws and matter in the universe possess many numbers, constants, numerical values which are finely tuned for life. If you tweak any one of these numbers, by even in some case a tiny amount, the universe cannot support life. Examples of this abound not only in the physical laws of the universe but in the kind of galaxy, kind of solar system and kind of world we live on. It is best to explain the rare phenomenon of the right conditions for life as the mark of a designer who set all the dials to the right value!

(iv) The discontinuity between us and animals. We are not animals (read the pagan writer Raymond Talis, "The Aping of Mankind" if you doubt that). Human beings tower above the animal world in every single activity, bar none. And supremely we have minds. Animals act on immediate sensory inputs plus hard-wired instincts and live existentially in the moment. We are able to imagine a world completely different from the sensory inputs flowing into our brains at any moment. For this reason we can have hope for the future, empathise with others and do all the very different things that mark out human beings.

How come the human mind? There is for sure not one single evolutionary reason for it! Plenty of organisms survive very well without it, and the possession of a mind could easily be a hindrance to survival: doing art on the Savannah while a lion is stalking you.... or maths while your family are hungry.... do not give survival advantages.

The only explanation for the human mind is Another Prior Mind who made our minds in his image.

So ID is seeking to go beyond the iron prison walls of materialism to seek the real explanations for the wonders of the universe.

ID will NEVER win the day
But ID, like all truth will never ever ever win the day. It will never be accepted by "mainline" science. Google ID and you will get this: 

"Intelligent design (ID) is the pseudoscientific view that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."

The reason ID will ALWAYS be despised (like all truth), is because admitting a Supreme Intelligence, admitting the existence of God acknowledges that we may be accountable to him, perhaps our lives are displeasing to him? Perhaps we need to change our lives? Perhaps we need to submit to him? No way! And so in our rebellion against God we suppress the truth! (Read all about it in Romans chapter 1).

So although ID will for sure overtake all materialistic explanations for origins - it already has - it will, I predict, never, ever be acceptable to pagan science. Indeed what I expect as the modern evolutionary synthesis is undermined is increasingly foolish explanations of where we came from. Why? Because, if you deny what is so obvious, you mess up your forensic logic software and cease to be able to think straight.

Example? In "Aping Mankind" the pagan neuroscientist, a great man, Raymond Talis, after debunking all attempts to put humans and animals on the same footing makes a suggestion to how the unbelievable human mind came into existence......

Wait for it...., I can't believe that?

That's what he suggests!?

Want to know where the human mind came from?

The opposable thumb! There are simply not enough smiley emojis in thw world to describe how crazy this idea is. Once the opposable thumb was invented by evolution it led to brain developments which resulted in the human minds we now have!

"Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" is how Paul would decribe such madness.

In the midst of a world of scientific origin-madness and lies, Hughes Hall was an oasis of honesty, sanity and reasonableness. And worship. A wonderful day in Cambridge.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Film Review - The Light Between Oceans

Our messy lives
For my lovely wife's birthday, we went to see the 2016 film, "The Light Between Oceans." Rotten Tomatoes gives it an unfair 59% (compared, for  example with 82% for another 2016 film, The Revenant.)

The film is about Tom, who, trying to forget the experiences of four bitter years spent in the first world war, ends up manning a remote light house loctaed "between two oceans".

Don't read on if you plan to see the film!

The Light between Oceans is a beautiful and moving film about the mess humans can so easily get themselves into. Many of the greatest themes of life in a fallen world are to be found here.....

Beautiful nature is not enough
So Tom ends up on the lonely island of Janus Rock.  Although he is surrounded by spectacular natural beauty he is desperately lonely because inanimate creation is not enough to satisfy or heal his broken soul. He falls in love and marries Isabel (from the mainland) who joins him on the island. 

The beast and the beauty
But all of the joys of this passing life are marred by the fall, and two miscarriages later, Isabel is depressed and down-hearted. One day a small boat is blown onto the lighthouse rocks. On board is a baby and the child's dead young father. Tom knows that the rules of the lighthouse demand he records this event and calls in help, but desperate to make his bereaved wife happy he buries the dead father and colludes with his wife to pretend the baby belongs to them.... 

The union of husband and wife in crime
Truth may not always to be found in a married couple, for love often blinds them and then binds them. Tom's conscience says one thing, his love for his wife says another, and instead of standing up for the truth, he agrees with the deception and thus begins a life founded on a big fat lie....

You can't live a lie for long 
....but conscience won't long abide a lie. When happy grandparents congratulate the couple, it's hard to hide the moral short-circuiting going on in their heads. When the baby is christened, it's hard to hear words that imply the child is their own. Faces contort as consciences are pricked. What is worse, Tom hears about the true story of the child and its father: one day, after a period of bullying, the father took his baby daughter and set off on the open ocean leaving behind his wife. All assumed father and child had died at sea, but Tom upon hearing of the intense grieving of the widow writes her an anonymous note to say that the father was "in the hands of God" and the child was safe. This begins a police search for the baby which will lead to the arrest of Tom and his wife....

Be sure your sins will find you out
Tom and Isabel's sins are found out because of the note Tom wrote. One sin leads to another: Tom in his desire to protect his wife from punishment lies to say he was wholly responsible for the cover-up. And then, when the heat is on, Isabel, out of her love for Tom admits her part in the cover-up; it looks like they'll both be locked away.

Forgiveness "heals"
The true mother forgives the couple and their sentence is reduced and here, at last, is where some measure of redemption takes place in the story.  It seems as though she brings up the baby without bitteness or rancour because many years later as an adult, Grace visits Tom, Isabel having passed away. The death of one father leaves one wife bereaved, but the deceit of a couple, in their desperation to have children, bring misery to four people. Sin spreads, sin has consequences, and what tragic webs of sorrow sin weaves in our lives.

Unwinding the tangled web
Suppose we could go back in time, suppose, for a moment, a wife grieving over two miscarriages is comforted and strengthened by her husband against a temptation to take a baby not her own (for to do what is right is always better than to do what feels best). Suppose the husband lovingly stood up to his wife and reported the missing baby. A grieving mother would have been reunited with her baby, four years of seared conscience avoided and many long years of sorrow in the lives of four people prevented.

It sounds like I think The Light Between Oceans is a real-life story! These themes are so close to the tangled webs we weave that it could very easily be a real life story, from which only the saving grace of God can heal and restore. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The (spiritual) gift of leadership - do you have it?

A vital gift
According to Paul's letter to the Romans (chapter 12) leadership is a gift of God. Paul is not thinking here of the ordinary practise of human leadership, but the spiritual gift of leadership - which is very different from human leadership, or what we might call "worldly leadership".

Worldly leadership
The practise of worldly leadership is very different from spiritual leadership. A worldly leader may have acquired his position by smooth rhetoric - some people can talk and charm their way to the top. Perhaps she got there by wealth - in the ancient Roman world you bought positions of authority (as you do in many countries today). Perhaps it was sheer force of personality or even bullying or education, that led to the top. There are unusual worldly leaders who did not get to the top by these means, to be sure, but they are rare.

Christian leadership
Christian leadership and secular leadership may, like two circles, overlap in the middle. For example, all leaders are communicators (they answer emails, texts, etc.) and all leaders give attention to detail, but here are five unique qualities of Christian leadership, taken from Christ our supreme example:

(1) Christian leaders are humble. This is the first requirement, and it is evidenced by teachability and a submissive spirit. Someone who does not know how to "back down", who has never been known to submit to another may make a fine leader in the world ("he's a strong leader" they may even say, "she's never made a U-turn"), but this person does not have the gift of Christian leadership.

(2) Christian leaders are courageous. A Christian leader must put the will of God before the will of anyone else - including the will of his wife, family, whoever. When Jesus' family came to him on one occasion, assuming he would automatically and immediately jump to their needs, ("of course, they are flesh and blood"), Jesus continued teaching - for his Father had given him that task.

(3) Christian leaders have a servant spirit. "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." Leaders don't hang around waiting to be crowned, but without any promptings get on with the work as humble as it may be. This inded is a major way their gift is discerned: they are servant hearted.

(4) Christian leaders lead by example. Christian leaders do not say "Do this" but go and do something else. The force of all their exhortations comes only from the example of their lives. "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."

(5) Christian leaders are hard working. Finally, true Christian leaders are hard working. Jesus accomplished so much in his life that the apostle John once wondered if all the books in the world would be enough to record his works.

Are you a spiritual leader?!

In my own personal experience, spiritual leadership is rare, but since Christ is the head of the church, we expect to find him raising up all the leaders any local church needs. Our task is to constantly look out for the next generation of spiritual leaders. We can't make them, but we can recognise them.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

What is success?

(when bringing up our children.....)

The latest edition of TIME Magazine talks about nine families who "raised children who all went on to extraordinary success" - or so it says. So how do TIME define "extraordinary success"? Here goes; two examples:

  • The Wojcicki sisters - one is an epidemiologist, another the CEO of Youtube and the third the CEO of a genetics company.
  • The Simmon brothers - one a rapper and reality star, another a painter and philanthropist, another a co-founder and hip-hop mogul.

In other words, success = someone who is either clever, famous, powerful, wealthy or gifted. This is how the world evaluates success and this view so easily invades and shapes the mindset of Christians.

What's missing?

What is missing from this worldly definition of success is everything that a follower of Jesus regards as most important and precious. Character (and especially Christlike characteristics such as servanthood) is missing, and faith in Christ which leads to salvation and eternal hope is missing.

What matters to a Christian parent, towering above all other matters, is that our children come to know the Lord Jesus Christ whom to know is eternal life. We then want our children to walk faithfully with God all their lives, using the gifts he has given them, all the while storing up treasure in heaven. If their calling is to sweep the streets or sweep into power, it makes no difference to us: we prefer a converted street sweeper as a son than a pagan president.

The qualities TIME regards as giving a child "extraordinary success" are actually rather unimportant, for all of them are passing and ephemeral.

Christmas letters

Over the last 30 years I have taken special note of the annual Christmas letters we recieve from Christians and sad it is to say, we Christians are just like the world. We boast about the earthly achievements of our children and hardly even mention spiritual qualities and characters.

Daily polutted by the values of the world we need a regular cleansing and renewing of our minds and attitudes and priorities, so that we can train our children in the things that really matter and guide their feet into true greatness.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

On Reading Books

"I don't read books"

I have met Christians who make boast of the claim that they don't read books, even that they don't do much reading fullstop. Invariably this turns out to be part-tale because they're on social media or online much of the day. What they normally mean is that they don't like the serious discipline of sitting down to read a book.

It's a hard position to defend as a Christian because we are, by definition, "people of a book", the Scriptures. It is the truth that sanctifies us, comforts us, leads us and teaches us. So frankly if we are not readers of The Book, at the very least, we shall be poor followers of the Word.

The tale of Les
What is more, love for The Book often leads to a great love of reading in general. I once worked at Yale Locks in Willenhall where I met a labourer by the name of Les. Recently converted his mind had come alive. Not just his heart but his mind. He would have been one of those "I don't read" types (except of course The Sun) but God's word, like yeast in a batch of dough was shaping every part of his life including his mind. He became a great reader - and some of those books were heavy stuff. (It is a complete myth that working class blokes are thick - this man had more intelligence than most graduates I have met).

So reading books and being a Christian kindof go together.

But this can be a problem: it's possible to be a reader and not be a learner. Unless the reading is disciplined you can end up deeper in the trenches of tradition and prejudice than ever before.

The example of Holy Scripture
The divinely inspired Scriptures set for us a noble example of how to read. We are given many different varieties of reading material in the 66 books of holy writ. We have biography and letter, poetry and prophecy, law and song. Some books are easy to understand and some hard. Some can be read "off the surface" others require a whole lot of background study. With the divine example in mind, we might draw up a few guidelines for reading books.

Suggested guidelines for reading books
(1) Read widely. It would be a mistake to limit your reading to one class of books. Read Christian books (mainly) but read secular books as well to understand the world you are living in. Read doctrine, read history, read biography, read poetry, read generally.

(2) Read the best. Since life is short, choose carefully. Make sure the book has good reviews (good=written by layman, "I found it helpful", ignore the comments of the doctors and teachers of the law, "a praiseworthy summary of the author's PhD manuscript"). Best is often old. Why? Because time sifts out the rubbish. A new book bigged up by a publishing company spending millions to earn millions may be worthless and tomorrow consigned to the (big) dustbin of history. If in doubt, speed-read before reading.

(3) Read outside your comfort Zone. Reading can actually make a man more ignorant if all he does is read to confirm his prejudices! Some do that until they are experts in dots and commas. Read books you do not want to read! Let them challenge you. Example: I am correctly reading a whole set of books on the Anabaptists. These guys were despised by the Reformers - especially the big shots like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin - (of whom I once thought of a tad too highly!). I am quickly becoming an Anabaptist as a result! Or, to correct myself, I think their contribution to Christianity has been greatly underestimated by history and the Reformed churches.

(4) Read outside your interest Zone. So you read outside of your comfort Zone: you read the Anabaptists if you are Reformed, the Calvinists if you are Arminian. But what about something totally different. Do you read enough biography? Enough history? Some fiction (a little)? (Steady!)

(5) Read One Book the Most. Some years ago a good man, a good pastor went astray seriously. Those around him had sensed this drift many years before. The man admitted that for every Christian book he read, he was determined to read a secular one (ratio 1:1). Perhaps that's a poor balance. Because we can be tainted even by standing in the way of sinners and turn into chaff that the wind blows away. We need to guard our thoughts and fill them with the law of the Lord. And if we meditate on that law we will become like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in season. Above all else, disciplined above all else, make the reading and study of God's most holy Word, your primary reading.