Lifting my eyes

It’s a Wednesday and its one of those days when I despair for the human race. God’s goodness seems yet subject to the whims of the powerful and the pseudo-ethics of an organisation whose sole purpose is self-preservation.

 

I’m not a good soldier today. I’m a grunt in a foxhole in the middle of winter in the Ardennes. It’s the Battle of the Bulge and I only have a small view of the fight and it looks lost. No air support, faced by constant German artillery bombardment, this is my posture on this Wednesday afternoon. I keep reminding myself that going on emotion is regressive. But I don’t feel stoic and think of Leonato’s line from Much Ado about Nothing, “there was never yet a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.” (Act 5 Scene 1)

I look to the hills
I look to the hills

A line comes to me from the Psalms, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” I wonder whether the hardy people of Scotland are closer to the LORD for their proximity to the highlands. I’m fairly bad at handing disappointment, but who else could I look to except Him?

The July 20 Plot

On 20 July 1944 a group of like-minded German officers and civilians initiated a plot to assassinate the German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. This series of events was compellingly committed to film by the movie ‘Valkyrie’, starring the diminutive Tom Cruise in what I consider to be one of his better roles.

Valkyrie
Valkyrie

On the face of it, such a plot would fall into the category of murder and would therefore be against God’s law, specifically his sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). Can you imagine the stress these men must have been under? Lifelong military officers, loyal citizens, steadfast Germans reduced to meeting in secret and discussing the unspeakable? Some choices in life really are that complex.

 

In the movie ‘The Siege’ (1998, 20th Century Fox) an FBI agent and CIA spook are discussing ethics as it pertains to fighting terror, and the spook concludes that it’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong, but what’s harder is choosing the wrong that’s more right.

The Siege
The Siege

It’s not easy to maintain one’s moral clarity in times in history where the scales measure the life of an evil dictator versus a country full of innocent people in the way of a terrifying Red Army.

 

I for one am glad that God knows my motives, whether I do good or evil. I frequently make decisions under stress and even under normal circumstances make the wrong decisions when the choice is easy.

 

Thank God for forgiveness.

Bird Brain

Up until this past Sunday we had a bird named ‘Stormer’, who happily perched in his cage and watched the goings-on in the lounge. A budgie with yellow and green plumage and a ‘skeerbek’, Stormer had a penchant for eating seed very sloppily. The floor under the cage was constantly crunchy underfoot. Whilst Stormer was not my bird (I would never have named my bird after a fan from a rival rugby team) I reckon that I spent the most time in the lounge with him. On Sunday evening we found his tiny corpse at the bottom of the cage, surrounded by excess bird seed.

 

For the residents of the house, the denizens of Cape Town and the rest of the world in general there was no pause and life went on. It may seem the same when it comes to us and out trivial travails, our days when everything goes the shape of Kim Kardashian’s pear. And yet…it appears that the heavenly Father noticed.

 

As recorded in Matthew 10, Jesus is speaking with his disciples and remarks that 2 sparrows are sold for a penny, and yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of the Father. If God has awareness of individual sparrows then it shows how he notices us, especially since we are worth more than many sparrows. Why did Jesus refer to sparrows sold for a penny? In those days people would bring animals to the Temple for sacrifice, and if one could not afford a sheep or other large ritual animal a sparrow could be sacrificed instead. Your average sparrow in a pet store will go for more than a penny however for a sacrifice in Jesus’ day that was the going rate for 2 sparrows. A penny amounts to 25 American cents – a quarter. In Bible times when 4 sparrows were sold, they usually threw a fifth one in for free.

 

Sparrows in Bible times were – and still are – social animals. The social networking phenomenon Twitter evokes a large group of sparrows tweeting and repeating messages that are limited to no more than 140 characters. And the contents are usually the subject du-jour, whatever’s trending at the time. No tweet will ever become a classic in the way of ‘War & Peace’ or Shakespeare’s sonnets because they aren’t meant to. Like the news printed on great sheets of paper tweets lose their potency as they are replaced by ever newer tweets. Old tweets are as useful as yesterday’s newspaper – as a hack for lining bird cages. Tweets are not normally profound but we pay attention to them. Our thoughts may be as trivial to God and yet it seems He notes them.

 

(Maybe we find social media and bumper sticker sentiments comfortable because they are easy. It takes time to read a book, and even more to write one and the reward is easily greater. Compared to God who seems very careful and deliberate with his words we are doubtless like tweeting bird brains.)

 

Along with the incredible idea of God having a will or knowledge of a lowly bird, In Matthew 10 Jesus also notes that the hairs on our heads are numbered. Apparently our heavenly Father even has a means to count the hairs on our head, that’s how much he knows and values us. I’m sure it’s not for the follicular enjoyment of things. Can you imagine: you could ask an IT person to write an algorithm to keep track of hair on one person’s head, but why would you want to? It seems like a lot of trouble for something that doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond the enjoyment of maths. There’s no fancy theological reason I have been able to uncover why this is…He simply delights in us.

 

I couldn’t begin to formulate the hairs on my wife’s head. Never mind the original colour.

 

It would be interesting if I had a bird brain; with sharp eyes, hard-wired instinct regarding the mechanics of flying, a tendency to tweet and enjoy seed – I would also have no place for worry in my tiny little head, like your average sparrow. Failing that though I have to be guided by Jesus, to

 

  • Not be afraid of those who can only kill the body but not touch my soul
  • Recognise his care of me, and
  • Acknowledge that skeerbekStormer falling from his perch did not go un-noticed.

What’s in a name

Recently I was thinking about all of those lists in the Bible of guys with strange sounding names who begat so-and-so, or who leading this or that tribe of Israel. My wife and I began an endeavour a few years ago to read a few chapters of Scripture every morning, starting in Genesis and moving forward. The most difficult to plough through were Leviticus and Numbers because of all the very specific instructions regarding the nation and the tabernacle and because of all the very foreign lists of names.

 

Names on a list may seem dull, but they tell a story and if you’re clued in to what the writer is getting at then it means so much more.

 

If I threw out some names like:

  • Brian Clark
  • Stanley Pramnaith
  • Rick Rescorla,

You might know that this is a partial list of some of the men working in the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Stanley and Brain made it out and have been friends ever since. Unfortunately Rick Rescorla did not. Rick was a security consultant for one of the firms in the north tower and opted not to evacuate himself but stayed to help others get out.

 

Rick is on another list that I know of:

  • Rick Rescorla
  • Jack Geoghegan
  • Willie Golboldt
  • Hal Moore,

This is a partial list of just 4 names from two companies from the 7th Cavalry who fought elements of the North Vietnamese Army near the Ia Drang in November 1965. By happenstance Rick Rescorla witnessed 2 historic days for America. As a security consultant Rick was convinced that the World Trade Center would again be a terror target after the 1993 bombing and unfortunately he was correct.

 

Hal Moore was commander of the 7th Cavalry. His name is on a list with other commanders of that famous unit, most notably George Armstrong Custer who foolishly led his regiment to slaughter.

 

Jack Geoghegan and Willie Godboldt’s names are side by side on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. Jack was fatally shot while trying to save the life of Willie Godboldt who himself was shot.

 

My beloved Sharks have just arrived in New Zealand and fans were presented with some of the following names:

 

  • Chiliboy Ralepelle
  • Coenie Oosthuizen
  • Etienne Oosthuizen
  • Jean-Luc du Preez
  • Philip van der Walt
  • Keegan Daniel
  • Tendai Mtawarira
  • Odwa Ndungane
Braai
Braai

I can tell you some things about these guys. Chiliboy made his return to rugby after a 2 year ban for taking a banned substance. The Sharks gave him a second chance and he is rocking it. Coenie and Etienne, both Oosthuizens aren’t related. As an Ozzie commentator once remarked, Coenie ‘know’s his way around a braai’, which is to say that he’s a strong lad. Etienne is a young man that travelled to Brumbies land only to follow his coach Jake White back to the Sharks, and whereas he seemed to be out of place I consider him an excellent lock. Jean-Luc du Preez hails from a rugby family that’s like the sporting version of the Ewings – a Springbok for a dad, and two brothers of high rugby standard. Some Star Trek fandom may have been involved in his naming. Philip van der Walt is a top bloke, a talented and robust 8th man who speaks fluent Xhosa and is as Christian as they come. Keegan Daniel plays for the Sharks for a salary but also for love and passion. No more committed man on the field than Keegan. Beast Mtawarira hails from Zimbabwe and Ian Mac turned him into a prop, one of the best in the land. Odwa Ndungane who had a twin brother playing for the Bulls, his uncle was the Archbishop of Cape Town. Odwa has been around for so long but he always seems to have that last little bit of game time in his legs.

 

In the Old Testament when establishing a spiritual dynasty and a nation God called a family and worked in the lives of the children and grandchildren:

 

  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob

 

Abraham was chosen by God to leave his home country and travel to Canaan which would later be the Promised Land. Isaac was a wheeler and a dealer however God used Isaac’s weaknesses as well as his strengths to work his purposes. Jacob was renamed Israel, a man who struggled with God and serves as a model for the sometimes tempestuous relationship that his descendants have with God. God is called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They are together as part of His working spanning three generations.

 

Speaking of those lists in Numbers and the lineage of Jacob, I came across chapter 26 which details the rebellion of Korah. The first-born son of Jacob was Reuben who had four sons:

  • Hanoch
  • Pallu
  • Hezron
  • Carmi

 

Pallu sounds like that guy who plays for the Waratahs, but its obviously not the same guy. Pallu had a son, Eliab, who himself had three sons:

 

  • Nemuel
  • Dathan
  • Abiram

 

Numbers chapter 16 chronicles the rebellion of Korah who rebelled against Moses with the help of Dathan and Abiram. Reuben had to forfeit the honour of the firstborn son to Judah and even in that day, Dathan and Abiram were still sore about that. Long story short, Korah and those who rebelled against Moses and Aaron were swallowed by the earth.

 

But in his mercy God did not let the line of Korah die out. Eleven of the psalms were written by the sons of Korah, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Do you see how interesting this stuff is? Names on lists have stories behind them, they have meaning.

 

In the time when the gospel of Matthew was being written it cannot be argued but that Israel was a patriarchal society. In the list of the genealogy of Jesus the messiah, the Holy Spirit saw to it that the names of several women were included:

 

  • Rahab
  • Ruth
  • Tamar
  • Uriah’s wife
  • Mary, of whom was born Jesus

 

I don’t know about you, but to me that’s pretty cool.

 

God has a list of names and he knows those that belong to him. Isn’t it awesome when we know that he knows us?

A case for war

Back on September 11, 2001 – which feels like ancient history now – George W. Bush and his cabinet correctly concluded that the attack on that day was in fact an act of war, much more than merely a criminal action.

 

As a result of actions that the American government undertook, Afghanistan and then Iraq were militarily defeated and Al-Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime were overthrown. In the early stages of the conflict President Bush was sure to remind people that the U.S. would draw no distinction between the terrorists and those who supported them. However this resolve was almost instantly met with compromise as Saudi Arabia was clearly involved somehow, if not by the preponderance of Saudi terrorists (15 of the 19), then by way of sympathetic agents in Saudi Arabia. Since the Bush administration had close links with Saudi Arabia, they faced no public consequences. This week after 14 years the final 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report was finally released which referenced Saudi involvement.

 

The prosecution of the war proved to be politically costly and public opinion was also heavily divided. Additionally, one cannot logically fight an ongoing war against a tactic. Terrorism doesn’t simply pop up at random but there is an ideological basis for it. That these acts of terror were inspired by Islam was clear, but George W. Bush and his cabinet almost instantly softened and began assuring Americans that Islam was and is a religion of peace.

 

No U.S. administration could justify a religious war with Islam, particularly since freedom of religion is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. However Islam isn’t only a religion but also a political system called Shariah which is designed to supplant competing modes of civic order.

IMG_20160716_100546

The Obama administration repudiated the Bush doctrine of going after enemies who present an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland. In fact, the Obama administration denied any links between Islam and every subsequent act of terror committed by Al-Qaeda and IS, or even inspired by IS.

 

The terror attack on Nice in France is merely the latest in a long line of terror attacks, and it is a certainty that there will be more. French minister of the Interior Bernard Cazenauve said that the French public must simply get used to terror attacks as a way of life. Obviously this statement was not well received by many in France however as politicians the calculus of terror and response has been weighed and they – along with every Western government – are unwilling to speak of the truth that they have discovered:

 

There is no radical or moderate Islam (as Turkish president Erdogan has publicly stated); Shariah is fundamental to Islam and Islam does not mean ‘peace’ but ‘submission’; Acts of terror are committed to intimidate the non-Muslim population and government into compliance; to resist is to invite more attack.

IMG_20160716_100528

Recently on Fox news, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, postulated that Muslims in America be given a test to examine whether they want Shariah and if so, should be deported because it is a political system that is in opposition to the Bill of Rights. President Obama pronounced this thinking as anathema, forbidden.

 

The Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas theorized that there are times when it is permissible for Christian soldiers and Christianized society to justifiably engage in war. There are other Christian schools of thought that favour pacifism but Thomas Aquinas referred to Romans 13: 4, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (NIV). In 007 parlance, governments have a licence to kill evildoers.

 

In the book, ‘When God says war is right’ by Darrell Cole, the author lays out the case for a just war which Christians can support, under the following points. War

  1. Must be declared under the proper authority (like the State);
  2. There must be a just cause, with the
  3. Right intention. War should only be a
  4. Last resort, and
  5. Have a reasonable chance of success.

 

In prosecuting the war, the agents should

  1. Give no consent to evil (the ends do not justify the means)
  2. Practice discrimination between the enemy and civilians, and
  3. Exercise proportional force (don’t destroy indiscriminately).

IMG_20160716_100513

Many of the acts of terror committed daily and weekly are not by state actors or agents from a foreign government but especially lately are conducted by so-called lone wolves inspired by IS. Islamic State has been clear about its intention to murder so-called infidels and in this case the conditions for a just war appear to be clearly met. What is lacking is the political will.

 

Assuming Western governments like those in France or the U.K. become serious about protecting their citizens from harm, IS can be obliterated from the face of the earth. This may include enlisting the help of the Assad regime. Even though distasteful, the Assad regime is a present fact on the ground and is not presently antagonistic towards the West. Looking beyond the destruction of IS, the question is now: Are we willing to submit to Islam? Without government resistance, and given historical patterns, our governments will submit to Islam out of fear of more attacks. This raises many more questions.

 

I’m convinced of this as I possibly could be, that Shariah is not of God. And even more so, God gave the Children of Israel the law, which is better than Shariah. And even more so, He made grace freely available to His children. We are not under law, but under grace.

 

Scripture compels me to be obedient to the State. I cannot submit to Shariah which sets itself up against the knowledge of Christ.  I’m not saying they have an easy job, but I don’t trust many Western governments to resist the push for Shariah. Ultimately they are put in place by God, and ultimately I do not look to the State but to God, being a citizen of His kingdom.  And that being so, I have to trust that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose’.

Wishes are for fishes

At the beginning of the year – and in the spirit of fresh beginning – I began an endeavour to study the book of Hebrews, partly because I was not as familiar with it as my favourites: Ephesians, Psalms and Isaiah; partly because I knew that it was rich in meaning, shining the light of Christ on many of the ceremonies associated with the temple.

 

Regretfully this endeavour is not yet finished but one of the things I learned is that Hebrews (in a nutshell) is about the superiority of Christ who is better than Moses, Joshua, Aaron, the priesthood and the sacrifices of the Old Testament.

 

Hebrews 10:10 explains that ‘…we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ Verse 12 carries on to confirm that Christ ‘…sat down at the right hand of God’, signifying that salvation is complete, a done deal. Verse 14 re-affirms that ‘…by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.’

 

Our salvation rests completely in Him, in His finished work, which was by His initiative and plan.

 

Hebrews 6:19 speaks of that hope as an anchor for the soul, that is fixed behind the curtain.

 

How differently and cheaply we use the word ‘hope’ in our everyday speech. We use hope interchangeably with the word ‘wish’. I remember with fondness a curmudgeonly movie about ‘Grumpy Old Men’ (1993; Warner Bros.) where one of the characters talks about wishing, to which Grandpa Gustafson replies that ‘You can wish in the one hand and [poop] in the other and see which hand gets full first.’

 

A wishing type of hope is actually wishy-washy and has no heft. It’s a throw-away sentiment.

 

This year I have had hope that the Sharks will go all the way in Super 18 and wouldn’t you know it, they’re tripping and falling and stumbling to the conclusion of the pool stages. Some people hope in the lotto to be the answer to their life situation and let me tell you that there will always be heavy disappointment associated with that windfall that never happens for over 99.9% of the people that participate. We have all at some point placed our hope in someone and been let down. At worst other people are slick and have the gift of the gab, at worst they are simply flawed or weak.

 

Hoping in God is the only sure thing there is. 1 Peter 2:6 says that whoever believes or trusts in him will not be put to shame. How do I know that this hope is secure? That I’m not merely wishing it? Well, there’s an empty tomb in Jerusalem where the body of Christ was once. And his Holy Spirit keep me coming back to him when my feet turn to the left or the right.

 

Ephesians 1: 13b – 14: “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

Reconciliation

From a news point of view July 2016 has been an exciting month: the United Kingdom is embarking on a new journey sans the European Union for the first time in around 16 years. Not only that they have a new Prime Minister with a new cabinet. The well-rated Top Gear program was re-cast with new presenters and the mechanics have now broken down that there is yet another change. Andy Murray has now won his second Wimbledon.

 

Across the pond, the election is in full swing and the stories that go with it: the latest scandal involving Hilary Clinton, including the appearance of bias, reckless exposure of classified material and an Attorney General appearing before Congress and the public discovering on C-SPAN that she cannot answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a simple question. The country is also heatedly debating issues surrounding Black Lives Matter, police brutality and racism. And in-between all of this there is intense speculation of who Trump will select as his running mate.

 

Here in South Africa there is always something going on, and it’s easy to think that all of this stuff on the news matters. People in the world are in serious disagreement about terrorism and its meaning, anthropogenic global warming, free speech and what may constitute reasonable restrictions on it.

 

The evangel ship ‘Logos’ docked in Cape Town this month and along with family I paid it a visit. Also this month a church group I know is currently in a country where the gospel is heavily restricted and as Christians meeting with locals. This is where the real news is happening, under the noses of the mighty and powerful news organisations that make and break public lives and serve as gatekeepers of what makes the news cycle.

 

It may surprise the news organisations to know that God is at work in the world in the hearts of people, and that by way of His people taking the gospel to those who need it. Many years ago when I joined a ‘year-of-your-life’ program to travel on a missions trip around Africa, they quoted the following verse of Scripture:

 

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5: 18 – 20 (NIV)

 

Curiously, 2 Corinthians was in the news lately because Donald Trump quoted from 2 Corinthians but said it ‘Two Corinthians’ instead of ‘Second Corinthians’. The mostly godless news media mocked him for it, although they probably completely missed the message that he was trying to convey by quoting from the book. At a speech this week commemorating the 5 policemen killed in Dallas, Obama quoted a Scripture verse from the book of 1 John however mangled the reference as he said it was from the ‘gospel of John’. The media gave him a pass and from their coverage of the commemoration most appear biblically illiterate in any case.

 

What can we deduce? Apart from the fact that those in the liberal media are in the tank for liberal politicians?

 

The real news is that God is at work and gave us the ministry and message of reconciliation. I like the way Afrikaans renders the translation of the word ‘reconciliation’, as ‘versoening’, meaning to kiss after a disagreement. This is where God is working and this is what the media miss completely.

A five year journey

Those who aren’t Trekkies may not appreciate the reference, but on August 5 2011, NASA launched a probe named Juno to the planet Jupiter and almost 5 years later entered orbit around the target planet. Juno activated it’s reverse thrusters and entered standard orbital approach around Jupiter on July 4 2016.

 

The fictional universe of Star Trek was famous for the Enterprise embarking on a historic five year journey into deep space under the command of Captain James T. Kirk. The first Star Trek motion picture featured the return of the ‘Voyager’ probe sent out by NASA back to Earth. In this case the probe Juno is scheduled to orbit Jupiter 37 times, gathering data, before crashing into the surface of the planet. It will be an expensive crash with costs from the project estimated at more than $1,1 billion.

 

Aboard Juno are three Lego figurines representing Galileo Galilei (the Italian astronomer), the Roman deity Jupiter and his wife Juno. It’s a McGuffin to get kids excited about science and if I’m not mistaken they are the first Legonauts in space! Why Jupiter? It’s only two planets removed from Earth with Mars in the way but it seems to be mostly gas and therefore different from most of the neighbouring planets in the solar system. Scientists and astrophysicists hope to discover more about the beginnings of the universe and answer the question as to why Jupiter is different.

 

They might do well to consider the counsel of Scripture and the One who made the planets and stars.

 

Regardless, it’s a massive achievement, sending a probe 2,8 billion kilometres to a ‘nearby’ planet with precise enough calculations to see that it gets there, studies what it is supposed to and sends the telemetry back to Earth.

 

We have the strong ambition of man to soar on his imagination and extend himself into the heavens but at the same time we have the familiar story of the condition of man which spoils the former. In the intervening five years since Juno was launched a lot of terrible things have been done by human beings to one another, culminating in what was regrettably a Ramadan of death: bombings in Baghdad, the slaughter in Bangladesh, suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia, a gun assault on a Turkish airport, the Pulse massacre, a stabbing in Paris.

 

In the time it took Juno to travel from Earth, mankind as a race fell further away from God. As with the nature of space the distances and separation from sin causes space to open up between each other and between us and God.

 

Inhospitable blackness. A void.

 

But (don’t you just love the fact that there’s a but) God’s mercy closes the distance at warp speed. His mercy is always greater than our sin and if the scientists and astrophysicists could only realise that in trying to examine and describe His Universe, they are looking for Him.  And that’s what I meant by the counsel of Scripture.

 

In the blackness of my own sin I discovered that I’m inches away from His gravitational pull and all it takes is a nudge to bring me into His orbit.

 

I love Psalm 51, written by David and it typifies for me the journey in a sinful void towards God’s gravitational pull, a coming home:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.