Brokenness: How We Reframe Sin

Broken WorldPastors and service leaders often tell stories or make reference to a sporting event or news item to connect with the congregation. Recently, however, I have noticed these techniques give way to the sure-fire connection that is made when the person upfront talks about brokenness. At a prayer meeting someone lamented,

We are broken people
Living in a broken world
Breaking things

And on reflection, I wouldn’t argue with it.

I also didn’t argue with it when it was said because we were talking about plenty of truly broken things in people’s lives. Things over which they had no control and that introduced seemingly senseless pain. Brokenness is a word that captures this idea really well and yet, I remember a time when I would have said, “We are fallen people living in a fallen world.” So I’ve been wondering about the difference.

My church did a series on Joel – the minor prophet who spends three chapters finding synonyms for “swarm of locusts.” The locusts come as God’s judgement on Israel. “Why are you telling me this?” you ask. Because somehow we did not talk about judgement in the series: week one: “the power of stories,” week two: “the possibility that pain is for our good,” week three: “the hope for restoration” (my titles). Each week the worship leader would welcome us and talk about how we probably all had rough weeks and that we come together as broken people to be refreshed by the Word and I was being my usual (non-critical) self thinking, “what happened to sin?”

Broken JarThen it dawned on me. Brokenness is something that happens to us. Jars get dropped, balls hit windows, iphones fall out of pockets – they all get broken and they are broken through no fault of their own. Broken things are victims. We are victims.

On the other hand, sin is something that we do. We are the perpetrators: we pull the trigger, we bend the truth, two options are presented and we choose the morally inferior one. Sinners are blameworthy and we haven’t wanted to take the blame since back in the garden.

I’m still not sure what the difference between fallenness and brokenness is but I am pretty confident about the difference between brokenness and sin. And the reason that the worship leader keeps talking about brokenness at the beginning of the service and we keep praying about it in prayer meetings is the same reason that the sermon series on Joel never accused me of being a sinner. I don’t like taking the blame.

Brokenness reframes sin turning us into victims
rather than perpetrators

Don’t misunderstand me. There are broken things and we are broken people. Not every bad thing that happened to you is the result of your own sin. And yet, the reason that I live in a sinful world is as much about me as it is about anyone else. Maybe in a generation that has such apathy to obedience and holiness, it’s time to own up to the part we play in breaking our world.

The Horse and His Boy: Having Faith when it is Hard

CS Lewis - NarniaThe Horse and his Boy is my favourite of the series, but also many people’s least. This is due to a few reasons, of which I will highlight just two: most seriously the charge of racism; and, from a literary point of view, its marginal overlap with the rest of the series. But we must remember the metanarrative of Narnia, which Alister McGrath says is set between two great “advents”, the past redemption (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe) and future restoration (The Last Battle). Recalling our point from The Magician’s Nephew, that C. S. Lewis invites readers to inhabit and experience the Christian story, The Horse and his Boy explores the tension of living between Aslan’s first and last coming in a world beset by evil and characters burdened by doubt.

CS Lewis - NarniaThe first character we will explore is the Horse, Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah, better known as Bree. Bree grew up in Calormen and lived as an enslaved warhorse. Though he longs for the North and freedom, he has much to learn. His strength, military success, and self-assured confidence make him the natural leader in the journey northward, but also cause him to be full of hubris. Towards the end of the narrative, his pride threatens to keep him from Narnia; Hwin realises Bree is apprehensive about venturing beyond the Southern March because his tail is damaged (p298). After their flight, Bree grieved his cowardice in the pursuit that saw him abandon the party for safety (p275). He concludes that he is disgraced and unfit for Narnia, but the Hermit incisively addresses Bree’s problem, “You’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit…You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think…as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse”. Aslan punctures our self-confidence; Bree had to learn that we are all unfit to approach Aslan, and abandon acceptability on his own terms. He needed to hear Aslan’s comforting invitation, full of tenderness, “You poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare” (p299).

CS Lewis - NarniaThe second character I will unpack is the Boy, Shasta. One might call him the unlikely hero for, unlike Bree, he is unimpressive and by far the least imposing of the travelling party. However, there is a lesson to be learnt from this observation. As Shasta plods along the misty and frigid mountain pass, Aslan walks alongside and speaks with him. Shasta is miserable and lost, “Being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks” (p280). But Aslan tells Shasta that he was the one behind all of his misfortune and terrible luck (p281). When Shasta returns across the treacherous path, with the Archenlanders, he reflects on his conversation with Aslan, “I was quite safe. That is why the Lion kept on my left. He was between me and the edge all the time” (p290). This realisation, I think, is indicative of Shasta’s entire life, for Aslan was always with him in the confusing cloud, guiding the events in order to bring him back to Narnia, and himself. Reflecting on this brought another of C. S. Lewis’ works to mind, in Perelandra we read, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.” Shasta’s life is full of unfortunate happenings, yet he is the unlikely hero, for unknown to him Aslan is mightily at work in his world to make all things right.

A repeated motif in Lewis’ narrative is Aslan’s insistence on telling the characters their story and no one else’s. In To the One who Conquers, Sam Storms reflects on how the biblical story has a remarkable capacity to challenge and overcome our misconceptions about who we are. Bree revealed the common combination of pride and guilt; he needed to learn that belonging to Aslan he could neither earn his place in Narnia nor  jeopordise his security. Shasta, on the other hand, could not believe that the many misfortunes of his life would end in anything but tragedy, because he was unaware of the sovereign and loving presence of Aslan who worked through all things to bring him closer to himself. Aslan is the person in whom all stories connect, but everyone needs to approach him as they are, alone.

Let’s be Sensible: Original Insights [Titus 2]

Being Sensible

Most people arrive at Bible College dreading the prospect of  Greek and Hebrew – nerdy as I am, I relished it. Not because I expected to have original insights on any given text but because I could have insight based on any given the original text. In general, to be perfectly honest, our translations do a fantastic job of conveying just what the original is trying to say because English is a wonderfully diverse and expressive language. Sometimes, however, English fails us and something exciting happens in Greek that is totally unseen in our English translations.

In Bible study we are working our way through Titus and we’ve just hit Titus 2:1-10. Already we’ve noticed that Paul is concerned about the mental activity of the Cretans. In his introduction, Paul says that it is “knowledge of the truth” that “leads to godliness” (1v1) and his response to bad behaviour on the part of the church in Crete is “instruction in sound doctrine” (1v9).

In my preparation I always like to read through the Greek and jot down my own thoughts before looking at commentaries or other translations simply so that I approach the text with some kind of freshness of mind. As I worked through 2v1-10 I was struck by the prevalence of σώφρων and its cognates (see vv2, 4, 5, 6 and outside 2v1-10 there’s 1v8 and 2v12).

The word “σώφρων” means something like “of a sound mind” and the idea is that living sensibly (sound mindedly) will result in curbing of one’s desires. The words “temperate” or “self-controlled” are, therefore, sometimes used in translation. In this instance “sensible” (HCSB, RSV, NET) seems like a good translation because it communicates the sound-mindedness of the behaviour. “Self-controlled” is certainly the more common option though (ESV, LEB, NLT, NIV – the ESV has actually reworked this section from the RSV). The trouble is that “self-controlled” lacks the link to thought life. Then there is also the annoying cognate “σωφρονίζω” which means to make someone be “σώφρων” – a concept that English cannot express in a word and so we have “encourage” (HCSB), “train” (ESV, NLT) and “urge” (NIV) but nothing that shows the link Paul is making between a sensible mind and good behaviour (“make the young women sensibly minded so that they love their husbands and love their children”).

No translation I have found picks up on all these occurrences and their cognates. But then, it’s not good English style to repeat words, English prefers synonyms. The unfortunate result is that as English translations alternate between “self-controlled” and “sensible” and even “train”, we lose the emphasis that Paul places on “sensibility” by his repetition.

This is a good example of why I am grateful of the little knowledge I have of Greek: as I read Titus 2, I automatically see a broader theme of Titus, how Paul believes that right thinking leads to right living.

Reflection on Bible College: Christian Disneyland

disneycastleI recall one of the first phone conversations I had after arriving at Bible College. Shiny shoes and starry eyes, I remember telling my mom not to worry that I was 1000+ kilometers away from home; Bible College is “like an extended church camp”. And it was. Good teaching and close knit community built around a common interest will always produce a high. More so, I would say, when that common interest is also the highest interest, namely God. The high lasted without decline for four years. Perhaps, however, it was a bit like the high of a stint in Disneyland.

I am told that Disneyland is built with a vast network of underground tunnels so that actors in costume are never found out of place as Goofy goes for a loo break or Mulan has Indian takeaways for lunch or the White Rabbit hurries through the park late for his appointment. The point is nothing in Disneyland goes wrong, vomit doesn’t have a chance to hit the floor and litter is vapourised as it leaves the negligent tourist’s hand. The world of Disneyland is surreal and fantastic – it’s designed to be, how else would it sweep you off your feet into the world of your imagination to “The happiest place on earth”? There’s only one flaw, it’s not real.

lonelyfootstepsAs I think of the time I’ve spent beyond Bible College, all 7 months of it, I realise that one of the experiences I share with many of my fellow graduates is a post-college low. It’s characterised by loneliness in some form, discouragement and possibly even lacklustre spiritual life. Of course these experiences ebb and flow and we are all now well enough equipped to deal with discouragement and spiritual struggles. I wonder, however, whether they are necessary.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my days at Bible College for the world. I made lifelong friends there and the depth of relationship that I experienced I suspect will only ever be rivaled by marriage. I certainly wouldn’t wish anything different in my own life. In fact, the people are the biggest selling point in my mind for full time Bible College and they’re something I never would have imagined matter as significantly as they do, had I not experienced it for myself. But supposing there were another way?

Supposing the local church worked hard at training people from its own midst – perhaps resources would need to be pooled from a number of closely located local churches but the models are being developed for this sort of theological education. Now supposing instead of investing four years into the church community of George Whitefield College (because really, it was a church community, as much as I poured myself into my placement church, GWC was inevitably far more a part of my life), I poured those four years directly into the church to which I would minister in the years to come and the people who are pooled together from the vicinity for training purposes would be the ones I network with to do inter-church activities.

Maybe I haven’t solved the problem at all because I’m still pooling people together; I’m still doing “college”. I guess my friends who got married to other friends who met through college would never have crossed paths. I suppose the advantage of that sheer number of people you rub shoulders with and learn from would be lost. So maybe Bible College is the best solution but is leaving Disneyland a necessary experience?

Then again, given the option I’d rather leave Disneyland than never have been. What do you say?

Reflection: Heaven and Friendship

Grafitti by Bansky A thought came to me the other day. Large portions of our lives are spent enmeshed with the transient. So much of this life is fading away, receding from view, as we approach the horizon, moving through time’s inescapable passage. We leave things behind. And many of us won’t have the chance to return to precious memories. Friendship too can fall into that abyss of antiquity. Towards the end of my fourth year in Cape Town I noted that all the special times spent with friends were not only unrepeatable but also numbered, one less jointly juncture we would own: one less hike, possibly our last coffee, or a penultimate theological discussion. We live in the shadow of the end and we are running out of moments together.

A very good friend of mine, wise beyond her years, once told me: ‘saying goodbye creates one of the most unnatural feelings.’ The people we spend our lives with will not always be around, or even on the other end of a phone line. In Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, Utterson says to his dear companion Lanyon, who wanted nothing more to do with Dr Jekyll: “We are three very old friends, Lanyon; we shall not live to make others.” Our lives as fraught with loss and full of the unrepeatable; we forever long for something or someone that has been.

Writing these reflections down brought another thought to mind. Towards the end of last year I went away with the leaders and boys from my youth group. For part of an evening we shared some encouragement from the year past along with what would strengthen us in the year(s) to come. I told them it was glory. The sure hope that I would see my brothers again in eternity, beyond the horizon and free from time’s relentless march. Glory is the absence of goodbyes. Each and every precious moment will not fall beneath the shadow cast by uncertainty and temporality. Our fondest memories actually provide a pattern for the future. For there will be more like them shared with the friends we have not lost.

Listen to David Brainerd’s diary entry from the 19th of August, 1742: “I prayed with [Mr Bellamy] and two or three other Christian friends, and we gave ourselves to God with all our hearts, to be His for ever. Eternity looked very near to me while I was praying. If I should never see these Christians again in this world, it seemed but a few moments before I should meet them in another world.” Brainerd understood that the world to come was resplendent with relationships, unending friendship in the undying light cast by our eternal God, the one who gives us into communion with himself and each other.

I often catch myself joking about glory, talking casually about it being an opportunity to meet and spend time with great Christian figures from the past. It very well might be. But upon reflection I cannot imagine leaving those who were dearest to me on earth for those I barely know in heaven. Now I realise this is beginning to sound quite speculative, so I will finish off. Is it not a marvel that our hope enmeshes the transient with the eternal? Friendships will continue into heaven. And while it is sometimes hard to imagine, glorified friendships will be more magnificent in the unadulterated presence of our God.

Author of Gilead, RobinsonTo close, here is a fitting quote from John Ames, in Gilead: “We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…but I believe Boughton is right to enjoy the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world” (p189). What pleasures surpass real friendship?

Doodle: An Interpretation of C.S. Lewis’ Lizard

the-great-divorceIn his small masterwork, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the peculiar story of a Ghost being confronted by an Angel. Sitting upon the Ghost’s shoulder is a small lizard, incessantly whispering in his ear. The Ghost is heading back to whence he came because the lizard, who promised to remain silent, repeatedly disturbed the silence of the liminal plain, separating the dark lands and the effervescent mountains, heaven. This is where enlivening conversations take place and the prospect of becoming complete people is presented to comparatively frail and insubstantial ‘Ghosts’ from far off. I really hope you read the entire book. If not then the chapter concerned can be found here.

The Angel offers to free the Ghost from the lizard, who has a powerful hold over him. Despite being embarrassed by it and having to limp away from the splendidly hopeful mountains, back to the dislocated and desolate place he came from, it is unthinkable that the Angel must kill the lizard in order for him to be free. It is an odd event in the narrative. But what is it about?

When the Angel begins to uncouple the lizard and the Ghost it is agonising for the latter. Amidst the dialogical fireworks, the lizard furiously pleas for its life and swears it will be obedient in the future. The Ghost doubts he can endure the hurt, of losing his little companion, or going through with the painful parting that he knows will mean restoration. The Angel needs permission from the Ghost before removing the lizard and giving the Ghost his freedom. Though his suffering feels like dying the Ghost realises, “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

red-lizardThen, “the Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.” Before the eyes of the narrator the Ghost begins to grow “solider”, “brighter” and “immense”. But something happens to the lizard too. Far from dying, it grows bigger and is transformed, becoming a splendidly silver and white stallion. He who was previously a mere Ghost, leaps onto the horse’s back and together they ride like a shooting star towards the mountains, “into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”

What does it mean? Why did Lewis devote a whole chapter to tell this story? Is he explaining the desperate difficulty of conversion, dying to our self? Is it a picture of mortification, the agony of stripping away the old nature? Perhaps it is an example of the tension between human responsibility and God’s gracious salvation. Could it be the prolepsis of a prevalent theme in Till We Have Faces, as Rowan Williams puts it, “The impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself”? While these are fascinating interpretations I am going to suggest something else: a thought I had reading David VanDrunen, Living In God’s Two Kingdoms (especially p43-44).

The cultural mandate, given to Adam and Eve, was to rule and exercise authority over creation. They were to protect the Garden’s holiness, as faithful and obedient custodians. Their covenant with God meant that any challenge or attempt to usurp the Creator’s rule and his imprinted authority on them was to be destroyed. But they, as well as us today, are not the creaturely sovereigns he intended us to be. For the serpent, both a tempter and an intruder, was allowed to defile God’s pure Eden through Adam’s failure in exercising his kingly dominion. The regrettable result of this is highlighted by the author of Hebrews, who says we do not see everything subject to man, as it was meant to be (2:8). So presently the natural world is outside our sphere of control; we are at odds with its formidable force. This is not what the Creator intended. We were created to rule. But Adam’s careless inversion of the created order, placing himself under the dominion of the serpent, would have lasting and disastrous effects for his heirs.

MountainSunrise_0The picture that Lewis paints in this chapter is of wondrous restoration, reclamation of the Creator’s order. What was undone and reversed in Eden is put right. The Ghost no longer cowers beneath the lizard’s persuasive weight. He is not entrapped by its subversive whisperings. He now towers over the glorious stallion as a more magnificent ruler. Lewis’ picture forces our gaze to that everlasting morning. Despite standing somewhere in between, we are not stranded but hopeful, sure that God is making all things new; he will re-invert what Adam wrecked. This is one of the things Lewis does so vividly in The Great Divorce, and throughout his other works; he enlarges our view of glory and God’s restoration.