All Quiet on the Western Front

The life of the Christian can sometimes seems like fighting on the winning side of a war. You, the soldier, are making advances, gaining territory, following the Commander wherever he might go, victory after victory. One of God’s epithets in the Hebrew Bible, after all, is Baal-Perazim: “the Lord of breaking through.” All is well. Hardships, yes; but each of these is met with breakthroughs and joys and the abundance of life that the Captain promised you back when you signed up.

But sometimes this life of following Christ can seem like trench warfare. Stalemate. You’re sitting tight; you haven’t seen action for weeks and months, nor have you heard from the Commander in all that time. You’re restless, tired, and weary, living off the last of your rations. You don’t know when or where the next attack will come, and nor do you know when the Captain will bring reinforcements. Maybe the Commander has even forgotten us here, starving here in the wilderness?

It’s all quiet on the Western Front.

But there is a rumour among the troops. A whisper travels across the front lines. There is a stirring in the trenches.

Hold tight, because we haven’t been forgotten. 

Don’t you remember the time when you followed him faithfully to battle, and every time experienced victory, they say. He’s doing that again. A few miles down the line, they’re breaking through. Sit tight. Be patient. He’s coming for us. 

And trust. 

Whether in the trenches or winning victories, this Commander tells us we are valuable pieces in the victory plan. This is a God who tells his people both to move forward off this mountain (Deuteronomy 1:6) and to stand still and remain steadfast (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is a time for moving forward and a time for standing in the place we are, because it’s all part of the victory plan.

The seasons of waiting, the times when all seems quiet and all seems lost, are still vital moments in the victory plan for this new Kingdom. The Captain calls us one body and one army, keeping some pieces in reserve and some for attack and each supporting the other. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, you, soldier, brother, sister, are still part of the victory march.

The Captain is sweeping across the front line like a tide, a tide of mercy, justice and righteousness. We’re part of his plans. It’s time to listen to our orders and stay at them with trust and humility, knowing  that whether we’re in the trenches or in the forward forces, we’re part of the plans for victory.

The Catcher and The Chimp

The devil is a monkey catcher. 

They say that in India, monkey catchers use a particular kind of trap to snare their prey. They attach a box or a bottle to the ground, placing inside a banana or a handful of nuts, tempting attractions for their primate quarry. Then they wait.

The ape, oblivious to the devices on his life, unknowing reaches into the trap, and clutches the treasures within. Sliding his slender hand into the small opening, he grabs the prize, closes his fingers around it. However, when he tries to retrieve his hand the reverse way through the opening, he finds that he cannot – with his digits closed into a balled fist around his treasure, he is no longer able to free himself.

The chimp is clever, but stubborn. He values what is now his, that which tempted him and is now in his possession, and he refuses to let go. This is is his undoing. This is his end. In his refusal, in his denial to let go, the catcher seizes him, bags him up, takes him to captivity.

The cruellest irony is this: it was in the ape’s power to escape all along. He was free, right up to the point he was captured, to let go, to escape. His free will held him captive long before the snatcher did.

The devil is a monkey catcher, and I am the buffoon that was wooed by his snares. 

The devil is a monkey catcher. We are the monkeys that stumbled into the trap after our desires. The stupendous paradox of it all is this: we know that we cannot ever taste the fruit, incarcerated in the trap, but, fools that we are, stubbornly hold onto it anyway. This, as I understand it, is the Christian doctrine of sin – forever reaching into bottles, wrapping our hands around objects of desire that those desires will never be sated by, trapping ourselves while always unable to truly enjoy the fruit within.

External agency has very little to do with this willing subordination – it is our own rebellious free will that holds us there. There isn’t much more for anyone else to do – the snatcher has an easy job as the bag comes down and the lights go out.

This is the predicament we are stuck in.

When we as Christians speak of the way out, the grace of Christ, it is often with the idea that grace is something safe, something friendly. We make it all sound rather painless. As if we will gain everything from it and yet lose nothing.

As if we’ll be released from the trap and still be able to have the fruit within.

Perhaps when Christ  said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off,” he meant this: that he, through grace, is offering a way to get our hand out the bottle, but we’re going to have to lose a hand in the process. In our refusal to let go, grace is a visceral solution, but the only way out. Without power to release our grip, he offers to wield the sword and cut us off from this ensnarement, permanently. 

It sounds radical. It sounds extreme. But he knows the fruit we so desperately wanted isn’t going to satisfy us. He knows it is poisoned, poisoned with the slow decay of desires not met, of consumption that does not satisfy. By losing a limb to free us we’ll save the whole body.

Perhaps we’ve got to stop talking about grace as if it is painless. Grace isn’t safe, but it is the only way we’re getting saved from this snare. If we’re going to let Christ’s work change us, we’re going to have to trust him with the sword.


It was at the threshhold of a world such as this that I stood in peril as a boy.

When we set out to learn a language, we first have in our finite arsenal of verbs and phrases only tittles and tattles of the new tongue, mere snatches of full comprehension. We pore over the few words and sentences we know, ignorant, largely, of the rich corpus of language of which we have only a tiny understanding. We are little sailors marooned in the midst of a vast, unknown sea of vocabulary and sentences, with only the sight to see a few miles around, a map redacted by our lack of comprehension.

We have only a little technical knowledge, but other than that, we are entirely ignorant. We comprehend the alphabet but not the language. We see the shadows cast by the light of hundreds of years of advancement and development culminating to the full corpus we have before us, and we are only now catching on to the end of that vast heritage. We are children learning an adult’s game.

This world’s foundations are spelled out in a language of which we barely have utterance, this cosmos written in characters not our own.

And yet we think we have it in our reach. We think that this object of our study is something we can box into our powers of understanding. Yet we are foreigners comprehending an unknown tongue, exiles chasing after a wind, philosophers grasping after abstractions.

In my youth I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.

So it was that I found myself on the threshhold of this world, this world which spoke to me in an unknown language. Here I was, clutching for verbs and nouns and phrases to make sense of it all.

I immersed myself in its language. I learnt its ways from its self-proclaimed experts and teachers. They taught me that this was all there was, there was nothing more to it. They taught me verbs and nouns as if they were well formed sentences.

So I learned and thought I had Knowledge. I heard sayings and thought I had Wisdom. I lusted and thought I knew Love. I ate and I drank, and thought I knew Satisfaction. I lived and thought I knew Life. I wronged and thought I knew Right.

I knew clusters of nouns and mistakenly thought I had grasped the whole language.

When I thought I had the whole corpus, in reality I had only a hollow carcass supported by the broken ribs of my ignorance.

Here was the slave who ran away from his master and chased a shadow instead!

This world was flung into existence by a Word, cast in the foundations of the Language of God; Logos beyond comprehension. We search it out as if we can grasp that Language, and yet we can barely come to terms with its alphabet. Letters like Love, and Knowledge, and Wisdom, and Justice, all making up this divine corpus, far beyond the power of us children to understand.

We pursue Science and Philosophy and Learning, all directed to the end of making sense of this tongue from above, and yet we barely able to decipher the characters on the page. We are navigating a cloud of unknowing, chasing after shadows, letters that escape our grasp like wind.

It is this that makes the incarnation of Christ on Earth so astonishing. That, in an act of sheer grace and love, this inconceivable Logos, this Language, would become comprehensible flesh. That eternity would reach down to earth on our behalf. That light would step down to cast out shadow.

It is by faith alone that we walk in this – to trust in the tangible unknown of God made Man, that we might step into the Language of eternity.

All itallics from Augustine’s Confessions, Books I-II

The Journey North

As I pack my entire life into a few small boxes, a conflation of emotions swirl like a snowstorm in my mind at what this season of change will hold. A mild sense of nausea about leaving behind everything I’ve known washes up against a euphoric shore of excitement for what will come; pressing anxieties are subordinated by the long to-do list of my brain as I make final adjustments and preparations.

But from amidst this turbulent bag of feelings comes the realisation that life in this earthly body, in truth, is itself one single, passing journey. A series of fleeting, treasured, momentary happenings propelled by the ticking machine of time; memories made as we shake hands and build empires and meet lovers and kiss and break up and break down and laugh and cry and one day, finally, reach our destination.

This life is one short train journey, if you like; a journey that begins at a station not of our choosing. We are passengers and travellers, never staying still, never able to hold on to what has come before, forever growing older as the landscape around us changes with the rhythm of the motion. Each life event that seems so massive to us at the time it happens – our first exams, moving to university, our first kiss, our marriages and our breakups, our career breaks and our successes- are no more than momentary stops at stations on the route. In those passing places we forge our identity, we have conversations with fellow passengers that give substance to life, and act as if these short stops are our permanent residence; but in a minute we are moved on again, forever journeying toward our destination.

This is the realisation that comes when we, as fellow humans, come up against the man Jesus Christ and His astonishing claims. He, stepping down into the transitory materiality of our little Earth, tells us that it is all passing away, it is all a chasing after wind, a meeting place for beings smelted in the crucible of time. This man, who claimed to have “no place to lay his head” is the leader who sends his disciples out into the villages with nothing but the staff in their hands and the clothes on their back, because, He says, anything that we as humans could hope to hold on to – our homes, our possessions, our victories and power – are all passing away. He stepped into the Galilean dirt for one second in history to tell us that this earth, in which we hold everything we treat as dear, is simply a passing place to an eternal destination.

That is why the early church leader, Peter, calls us “foreigners and exiles” – for once we meet with the Eternal Son, earthly things pale as no more than the passing landscape glanced out the window of the train. We have an idea of where this train is taking us – for we have been given a map of the stops. However – and this is the crux of free will – the choice of where we get off is up to us. However, the man Jesus, boldly claiming to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” tells us of only one station that will give us access to eternal life in the abundance of God – and that is through Him. He is the “gate to the sheepfold,” he is the train station to Paradise.

This realisation can be either overwhelmingly nauseating or an immense freedom. For us who claim to follow Christ, the choice to trust is the equivalent of dying a death, for He claims that those who hope to save their lives will lose themselves, but those who lose their lives to Him will save themselves. But, in that moment of dying to a world that is, in reality, dying before our eyes with every passing moment, we are lost in a joy that comes only with surrender; a surrender as we live with hands open, hearts unburdened, enjoying these fleeting moments as a foretaste of the day when we see our Father face to face when we step onto the platform of eternity.

Any fear of the future, as I embrace my journey North, is drowned in the perfect love of an eternal Daddy, knowing I, a being construed of breath and dust, am called a Son of God. For the meantime, I live to take in the breathtaking scenery as I make my way Home.

The World Outside The Walls

One day, you find yourself waking below the ornate arches and archaic architecture of some ancient museum. Lying there, you remember nothing of the past – your only reality is the here and now of the present moment. You pick yourself up, you start exploring; connections in your mind are excitedly awoken as you trace a story of your surroundings through the corridors of artefacts you come across. Everything so new to you, so awe-inspiring, a terrifying journey through cavernous rooms filled with treasures and blueprints and unknown things.

You come to a large door in an unassuming corridor; cracks of light breaking through the splintered wood indicate that this is the front door exiting into some brave new world, out there. You give it a push. Nothing gives. No handle, no way out – this door is locked on the outside, and it is beyond your power of reason or strength to find a way out. You retrace your steps.

You begin to meet other people on your journey through this endless place. Most of them have been awake longer than you. Some of them have made elaborate theories about how you got there; some have taken to an investigation into the composition of the stones, the science of the building, an enquiry into the elements of this marble universe from which you cannot escape.

In one corner you hear the muffled conversation of two bearded old compeers who have lived in this place for all their short lives – they say that the ornate and intricate design work in the interior indicates some sort of architect, some designer who lives outside in the real world; his or her character, they can only guess at. From another corner you hear younger men scoffing – “Of course there is no designer. There is order, yes, but there is chaos too, chaos that no designer would allow – you see dust and dirt, you see ivy breaking through the cladding, you see mould in the manuscripts, you see all manner of wild plant life breaking through the outer walls. This is all there is – order and chaos, and us to make sense of it all.”

Everywhere, men and women have their own elaborate theories, but none of them has any substantial idea about the nature of the world outside the walls.

Someone has mapped out the vast entirety of the place. Others have worked out the relation between the positions of the artefacts; yet others have considered the material composition and age of the relics. They seem to have made sense of the whole affair. Science at her best, casting new light into the shadowy recesses of the museum they call home.

And yet, they can go no further. There are questions even the scientists can’t answer, and even if they were more intelligent, they’d still be no closer to the truth of the matter. They’ve got the facts about their little world straight. But, trapped inside the museum, there is no way they can get at the answers about the things outside. They can’t hope to, from within the dusty confines of their prison, gain true intelligence about the fresh air outside. Questions about whether the museum does or does not have an architect, questions about this architect’s character, even if he does exist – all impossible to get a clue about simply from observing the interior of the structure.

This is the calamity we find ourselves with. We are trapped on the inside. We are in the museum. We are all, if you like, fish in a fish bowl seeing only refracted rays of light seeping through the liquid. Science can go as far as searching out the answers about our material world, and as humans we’re closing down the gaps in our knowledge. But even if we search it all out, we merely have total inside knowledge of a closed system, locked from the outside. Science is the truth about that system, but it can’t go any further. It can’t claim to have knowledge about things outside the system, about whether something or someone put the system in motion; about if someone built the museum. If she claims answers to these questions, she oversteps her mark.

Where does this leave us? Lost, chasing the whim of some far off sound, the echoes of birds who call to each other on the rooftop?

The Christian position is this. That, unlocking the front doors from the outside, a man steps into the confines of our museum world. He makes the ridiculous claim that he is the Son of the Architect, the rightful possessor and heir of the structure. He, in opening the door, gives us the taste of the fresh air outside, the natural light of the world beyond, a hope of freedom. We taste something we haven’t tasted before, something we can’t quite put our finger on – but we don’t quite get the full thing. Not yet.

This man gives us an ultimatum – that if we would but trust him, hold his hand and one day follow him out, we can forever live in that world. We must only wait until the time that the Architect has ordained for the doors to be broken and the windows smashed, so that the world outside can stream in and breathe new life into the hallways of stone. Until then, we live in faith, holding on to the brief catch of air we tasted in our nostrils when he first awoke our senses to the outside. He tells us, even if the others kill him, we must hold on to him, seek him out; for to those who trust, he will return and lead out.

Some shout him down as a madman. Others condemn him as a vile trickster, among the worst conmen for letting people buy into a lie. But those who looked him in the eye, who saw the depth of the love and mercy he held there even as the others led him down the corridors to kill him, they trust him still.

They hold on to this man’s astonishing promise. What alternative do they have? He holds the keys to the door. It is either that, or spend out the rest of their short lives traversing the meaninglessness of empty rooms and among objects whose wonders have worn off, forever disappointed by the half-baked answers of confused men.

So we hold on to the catch of breath contained in the memory of his voice, trusting that one day his promise will be fulfilled and that the doors will be thrown wide open.

Dismissing Pain

“Well, it’s part of God’s plan.”

And so the Christian negates the problematic tragedy of pain. Your very real and perplexing struggle boxed up and dismissed in one statement that so many of us, as Christ-followers, roll off our tongue as if it’ll make everything alright. As if everything will somehow be solved because of the blithe mantra that “everything happens for a reason.”

Sometimes everything doesn’t happen for a reason.

Sometimes, life is arbitrarily mean, cruel, and heart rending.

When, as Christians, we dismissively make these kinds of statements as excuses for God, we in a way elevate ourselves to a position of removed security. We apathetically presume some higher knowledge of God’s purposes, without giving thought to the agony of those facing suffering. We give the spiritual pat-on-the-back without getting dirty and hurt in standing with others in their pain. But, to remove the reality of pain in this world as some abstract happening that a distant God weaves into some unknowable, incomprehensible blueprint is to do a disservice both to the acutely distressing position of the sufferer, and does no justice to the presence of an all-loving God through their suffering. The Christian position, if I understand it rightly, is that God is not removed from our present condition, passively watching down from up in heaven’s ivory tower. He is not somehow sitting “out there” in the controller’s seat, a puppet master pulling inconsolable cosmic strings together for his amusement. He is not patiently sitting out eternity waiting for the day when he can smite the evildoer to hell in order to balance the books.

I think we Christians say that painful circumstances and uncomfortable happenings are somehow part of God’s plan because we haven’t fully comprehended the work of Christ. You see, the Gospel, the great scandal of the Christian faith, reaches its climax with its protagonist, God made man, entering into the darkest reality of the human condition, stepping into the malevolent arms of Death, and coming out victoriously holding the keys to eternal life. This is a God of nail-scarred hands, saturated in sweat and blood and doused in man’s darkest depravity. God walking in skin. This – this incarnation – is the assurance of a God who stands with the sufferer through the devastating reality of their pain.

The Christian isn’t removed from pain or shielded from its dark reality by some lacklustre excuse that it is part of God’s plan. Instead, the reverse is true – the Christian is born from pain. The marks of a Christian are the scars of when abundant love met eternal justice in the paradox of grace – when a saviour stepped into sin, when God was slammed into godlessness, when Christ shed blood for humanity.

For this is a God who partakes in the tragedy of a world torn from his blueprint, in order to bring about the design of a world willed in perfect love and mercy and joy and kisses and laughter. When we make out that God is somehow removed from our pain when we say that it’s all part of his design, we forget that his design was to enter into the maelstrom of our affliction to redeem us from it.

If, then, we’re going to be Christ-followers walking out into a broken world, we have to stop with half-hearted answers and making excuses for God. Our story is of a God who was utterly broken on our behalf, who came to stand by the afflicted in their pain, not watch them from afar in security. That means we need to forgo our security on behalf of those we find ourselves alongside – the pain stricken, the least, the lost, the broken. We need to stop with the safe, but often unhelpful, answers, and get our hands dirty and hearts broken by standing with our family in their suffering.

Reckless love means sacrifice. Reckless love means just standing by when everyone else has ran away. Reckless love takes courage.

Guilty Missionaries

A photograph: an emaciated, starving child clinging to his clearly desperate mother. Most likely an African country, but could as well have been a picture from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, or South America. However, it wasn’t the picture’s content that struck me most, as it sat there in the midst of my Facebook news feed, but its caption: “You think your life is hard?” An address to us in the West, the home of the First World Problem; a stark juxtaposition of the lives of the poor with our lives of creature-comforts and material abundance.

This little piece of text rattled all the wrong chords in me.

You see, by painting this little microcosm of global poverty, all this type of portrait achieves is to perpetuate a culture of guilt in regards to our apparent position of privilege in contrast to their need for help. In doing so, the people portrayed, the “poor,” become nothing more than detached, dehumanised objects of comparison. The way these images are circulated creates a dangerous power dynamic – we, in a way, are elevated from their suffering, voyeuristically peering down into the dark reality of their situation from a position of privileged security.  It becomes a case of us and them – we, sitting in the full-bellied luxury of comfort in front of our computer screens, contrasted with the impoverished ‘nameless and faceless’ living in extreme poverty.

This is symptomatic of our distorted Western perception of global poverty, an image severely tainted by the way that the issue is painted in the media and advertising campaigns. Images of malnourished babies in Cambodia, scarred child soldiers in the Congo, and bone-thin men in rags have come to characterise our ideas of what life for the poor looks like. And, indeed, there is no escaping that this is the dark reality of poverty. However, it appears to me that these typified images and descriptors of “poor people” have come to be a stereotyped caricature. The “poor” are treated, in a way, like a detached, remote category of people defined only by their circumstantial destitution, and not as infinitely valuable individuals just like ourselves. This characterised image of a stark material and circumstantial division is the paintbrush that has daubed a limiting, degrading portrait of people trapped in poverty.

These sorts of images, deliberately contrived to evoke sympathy and guilt, and perhaps inspire our wallets, has painted the picture of people who are necessitous, deprived, under-privileged, and absolutely helpless. This inspires a response to poverty out of a kind of benign elitism – the rich giving to the poor, the us giving to them, from a sense of misplaced duty or “doing our bit” or guilt at what we see.

As such, our response to poverty can become more about feeding our own sense of a saviour complex than it is about truly engaging with their need as real people, who didn’t choose to be born in the situation they are in, who are human beings equal in worth to us. They are in need of help, yes, but they cannot be defined by helplessness. They are need of material aid, yes, but their poverty cannot be the measuring line of their worth. This image of the caricature “Poor Person” is a dangerous contrivance, a face for well-meaning charity hiding a dark underbelly of patronisation of those who are poor, and a damaging perception of people as being defined by their social and economic need rather than their worth as individual people.

There is no us. There is no them. There is one family of broken people, beautiful people, infinitely valuable people, sharing one world. No one is more than the other.

Our generosity cannot be inspired by a misguided sense that we are sympathetic gods putting the world to rights. Neither can it be about being guilty Western missionaries doing our conscience-inspired bit to put the worlds to right. We are in a privileged position to be radical harbingers of justice, indeed; but that justice must be inspired from a position of loving equality, not the elevated “us” descending to the deprived “them”. Just as we had no power over being born into privilege, so those living below the poverty line had no choice over their circumstantial material depravity. We have no right to what we have. This radical reassessment of wealth and power should change the way we interact with global injustice. We cannot be ivory-tower watchmen, idly dispensing our spare cash to appease our own consciences by sympathetically responding to some oft-heard about, never-met idea of the poor person.

It is not feelings of guilt or patronising sympathy that people living below the poverty line need. It is solidarity, inspiring radical acts of sacrifice from a position of humble love rather than elevated pride that should characterise our response to poverty. We are not rich gods descending to distant, lesser peoples out of pity; no, we are brothers and sisters positioned with a material abundance, when our other brothers and sisters have a need. We are no less equals because some have more than others; we are family.