Getting good earworms

Earworms are those bits of a song you hear that get stuck in your head and won't leave. I shan't mention any, lest they do their worst to you.

If you're going to get something caught between your ears, why not make it something that will do your soul good? I love how Sandra McCracken puts pieces of truth together in such a way that they stay with you. I've had a line from the title track of her album God’s Highway in my head for weeks, sometimes as I go to sleep, sometimes when I wake up:
Fear not
Keep on
Watch and pray
Walk in the light of God's highway
I'm happy that's in my head, I need to hear that.

Following the principle of her previous album, Psalms, the lyrics of God’s Highway are closely tied to Scripture, and thus serve as an aid to meditating on God’s Word, which Christians are encouraged to do (Joshua 1:8 and elsewhere).

Arrangements are kept simple, with little more than an acoustic band to accompany the vocal-led production. It's unlikely there's an unexpected note in the whole thing, and I mean this as no disrespect. The closest McCracken comes to innovation is on Trinity Song, which suggests something of the mystery of its Subject by overlaying several harmonious voices.

The songs here are more than memorable, they give clarity:
My feet are strong
My eyes are clear
I cannot see the way from here.
As a description of baffled faithfulness this is so helpful. Likewise, the coda of Rachel’s Song is a stirring summary of the final event of this world as we know it, an event that matters far more than the attention most of us give to it suggests: “until the trumpet sounds, until our Home comes down.” This is typical of the album: there is no triumphalism here but something better, a faith that has endured suffering and continues.

Can we sing about difficulties without being consumed by them, can we consider our relationship with God without focusing on ourselves? With help from songs like those on God’s Highway, we can.

Here and There, Week 6 2017

No time for photos this week, so here's a vapour trail at dusk from a few weeks ago

We're living in a cultural moment which questions whether gender exists, so it's helpful to have Debra W. Soh explain conclusively that it does, and it matters.

Whatever party in the UK you support, you should want a real opposition so that governments can be scrutinised. Jonathan Freedland laments the uselessness of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in this regard.

"Is pain punishment for my sin?" is a commonly-asked question by Christians, and John Piper has given his answer.

You no longer need to go to New York to see the entire collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can even download and remix the images, suggests Loic Tallon.

In case you've been put off building a wall by their recent prominence in the news, Andrew Peterson describes his pleasantly domestic project.

Sriram Murali shows us what Orion looks like away from the light pollution of cities...

Here and There, Week 6 2017

This is the view from Aira Force

What kind of people is evangelical Christianity producing? Sharon Hodde Miller defines the urgent need of real prophecy in the church, and what its absence is doing to us.

On a similar note, D.L. Mayfield explores what's helpful about hygge (seeking cozy comfort) and what isn't.

Justin Taylor shares what Peter Kreeft calls "the single most illuminating three sentences I have ever read about our civilisation".

Hidden forms of laziness lurk in working long argues, explains Andrew Wilson.

The world is hardly in need of more polarising debates but Kate Palmer wants to know whether you put tomato ketchup in fridge.

Last weekend's Super Bowl was probably the best ever, you can watch highlights of it on YouTube from the perspective of players and staff who were given microphones.

Here and There, Week 5 2017

This was on display at the National Library of Scotland's exhibition, "You Are Here: A journey through maps." Apparently it makes fishing easier.

Ikea product names are nonsense, right? Wrong: Hannah Yi explains their logic.

Renewable energy is hopelessly expensive and we're going to destroy the world, right? Not necessarily, says Chris Goodall, as he reports on how good a year 2016 was for green energy.

Trump doesn't know what he's doing but the rest of us do, right? Hmm, says Alastair Roberts, as he considers how Trump works, and the immigration debate.

Growing old is awful, right? That depends how you look at it, argues Cornelius Plantinga.

Men don't like singing in church, right? Well they're missing out if that's the case, Ryan Shelton shows.

Here and There, Week 4 2017

Last week we went to Brussels, home of Tintin

John Piper has called Donald Trump an unqualified president, and given advice to Christians on how to live with this.

What do the book of Revelation and the riddles that Bilbo and Gollum tell each other in The Hobbit have to do with each other? Alan Jacobs suggests a link.

Few people really like pain, but can trying to avoid it become an idol to us? This is the challenge Rachel Watson considers.

On a related theme, Melissa Kruger's article, "Of Lice and Men" is worth a read just for the title, but she also shows how God really can work things for good.

Pete Tong's new album, Classic House made me smile with nostalgia as he gives those of us who went out clubbing around the turn of millennium some of our favourite tunes being played by a classical orchestra:

Given that Wayne Rooney has just become Manchester United's record goal scorer, here are some of the best he's scored:

This is the news?

“It's amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”
Jerry Seinfeld’s observation is under threat as rolling TV news coverage and the infinitude of the internet may have found their perfection subject in Donald Trump. It seems that the news is going to be in the news a lot, which makes this as good a time as any to share how I try to deal with news. It needs dealing with, with all the dramatic music, emotive images, huge font headlines, and events that are important and matter to us. Here are three things I keep in mind:

1. Everyone has a bias

Whenever I’m reading or watching or hearing the news, I need to remember that the person I’m getting it from has a way of seeing the world (which I may or may not agree with) and that will affect what they tell me and how they tell me it. They may or may not be conscious of this, but it has to be there because none of us are neutral, we all have preferences and principles. Then I must measure myself by the same standard: I probably won’t notice the bias if I share it, but I will be horrified by the discovery of it when it disagrees with me.

This is true whether you prefer the Guardian or Daily Mail. Yes, it is. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway has put together some recent examples of how this has been working itself out for journalists opposed to President Trump, and Ross Douthat has warned that those who behave that way, “while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him.”

2. Everything wants your attention

Have you ever seen a news bulletin on the TV that began with the headline, “Not much has happened today, to be honest”? News needs attention because it can’t make money otherwise, and the people involved in it want to feel that what they’re doing is significant. The need for money is why you get so many enticing headlines on websites and trails for what’s coming next on TV, the need for attention is why nearly everything gets described as “historic”.

Neither of these points mean we shouldn’t be informed of what’s happening. I’ve subscribed to The Week magazine for over a decade because I think it mitigates the bias and attention-grabbing issues somewhat. It’s a digest of the main news stories, bringing together multiple perspectives on them from the best sources around the world, and it also has a slightly less urgent feel than hourly or daily news bulletins.

3. No-one notices God

I don’t think that Christians have a monopoly on telling the truth, although we should be the must trustworthy people around (Ed Stetzer has made a plea for this). But this point is about the perspective that Christianity should bring. Most of what you see and hear and read will have been produced by people who think that this life is all there is: there is no God (or He is absent), there can be no miracles, there isn’t a coming Day of judgement and redemption. Not knowing those kind of things is going to affect your hope.

This is why I think Christians need to read the good news in the Bible more than they need the news. Only then will we really know what’s going on.

Here and There, Week 1 2017

My friend Jon Brown took this beautiful photo of me being prayed for last weekend

If keeping a Sabbath sounds like a miserable thing to do, get some perspective from Joshua Gorenflo on what this command from God is really about.

I love Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels, and this consideration of them alongside her autobiography, by Patricia Snow, sheds new light on them.

Anne Jolis tells how her local parish priest blessed her at a time of terrible sadness.

Was Orkney the most significant place in the British Isles five thousand years ago? The BBC series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, has a lot of interesting stuff among the usual documentary bluster.

Finally, if your arms are shorter than mine, you might find this way of changing your duvet cover helpful, if not life-changing...

Proverbs versus President Trump

May God have mercy on us all. Many people around the world will express a sentiment along these lines as Donald Trump becomes President of the United States of America this week.

A long time ago, as Trump began to make headway in his seemingly-unlikely campaign to become the Republican candidate for the presidency, I was reading through the book of Proverbs. This is perhaps the most practical book in the Bible, defining and describing what godly character looks like, and what it doesn't. Proverbs contrasts the wise person with the fool, admonishing the reader to get wisdom and avoid folly.

Unbidden, Trump's face and antics began to appear on every page. It was almost uncanny how particularly and spectacularly he fails the basic biblical tests of character in Proverbs, and how he revels in doing so. It would have been comical to me - as well as none of my business as a citizen of another country - were it not for Christian leaders in America approving of and even anointing Trump to be their representative.

Now, not as many evangelical Christians voted for Trump as we've been led to believe, and leaders like Russell Moore have spoken with courage and righteousness against what has happened. Of course I know that people, and therefore politics, are messy and complicated, and I'm aware that Hillary Clinton had plenty to discredit her to the conscience of a Christian voter. But the ungrudging nature of Trump endorsements, the lack of caveats or regrets expressed by men who should know better demands comment. I leave those comments to the book of Proverbs, of which these are just a sample...
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (6:16-19) 
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (10:19) 
Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool,
but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding. (10:23) 
Whoever belittles his neighbour lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent. (11:12)
The vexation of a fool is known at once,
but the prudent ignores an insult. (12:16)
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion. (18:2) 
A fool's lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating. (18:6) 
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. (20:19) 
A wicked man puts on a bold face,
but the upright gives thought to his ways. (21:29) 
Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble
is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips. (25:19) 
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips. (27:2) 
There are those who are clean in their own eyes
but are not washed of their filth. (30:12)
So Proverbs points at the fool with disdain: and I saw Trump. And as I saw him, day after day, I began to notice how often I was noticing him - and this concerned me. I don't read the Bible looking for anyone in there except God, and the person who I'm most concerned with warning and rebuking from its instruction is me. Proverbs itself tells me to do this, but too late I realised that I had fallen into a trap. Remember a few moments ago as you read those Proverbs, how you nodded along, maybe even laughed wryly as you saw Trump's character laid bare? Here's the sting:
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him. (26:12)
I am still convinced that those Christian leaders who happily endorsed Trump were wrong, by the terms of God's own book. But I also know that congratulating myself for recognising this puts me in more danger than a fool. May God have mercy on us all.

Staring out of a wall

He sits between a full-length portrait of King Charles II of Spain in all his royal finery, and a full-length portrait of an unnamed woman in nothing but her natural finery, so you would be forgiven for missing him, but I still remember the shock of seeing him twenty years ago. Miss Robinson took our A-level history class here to show us some culture, and when I walked into this room in the National Gallery, he looked so real that I almost thought he was sitting there in person.

He is Archbishop Fernando de Vald├ęs, and the great Velasquez painted his portrait, possibly after his death. Maybe that explains how threatening and slightly disconcerted he looks. He does not look like someone who has ever expressed joy in his life, which is sadly inappropriate for a Christian leader.

Returning to his gaze after a long absence, I was grateful for the power of artists and the generosity of a teacher who bought some ambivalent teenagers down to London to see wonderful things.

The Christmas Crowbar

I wonder if you’ve seen the Christmas crowbar at work in the last few weeks? You use a crowbar to force a gap or opening in something, which is helpful, but the Christmas crowbar is used by companies to force you to think about their products at Christmas even when those products don’t really have anything to do with Christmas…

I saw a poster the other that began, “This Christmas, upgrade…” Now, what might you want to upgrade at Christmas? Your TV for festive movies? A computer or phone for contacting distant relations? The Christmas tree lights? No! “This Christmas, upgrade your mayonnaise to Hellmann’s.”

Look at the advert above, which brazenly claims that pickles are the fourth-most essential Christmas food item! Not Christmas pudding, chocolates, mulled wine or mince pies – not even mayonnaise. The concluding line, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without them” implies that I have never had a Christmas, given how completely uninvolved pickles have been in my celebrations.

But my winner for the Christmas Crowbar challenge 2016, the most tenuous product link I’ve seen so far: mulled spice-scented toilet rolls and bleach.

You might feel sorry for their marketing teams, but they’re just so shameless they lose any sympathy I have for them. They’re trying to squeeze something in where there’s no space for it.

2016 has space for Christmas

I think 2016 has plenty of space for Christmas, in fact it’s desperate for it. So much that seemed certain has been shaken and shattered. From the unusually high number of celebrity deaths to the discovery of Zika; terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, Istanbul and elsewhere; the war in Syria, and violence and injustice everywhere. The Brexit vote has shocked many, and Trump’s election victory many more, and these are just the things big enough to make the news and close enough to us for us to notice.

2016 is desperate for Christmas. Not for another mad rush of buying more things, nor forced cheerfulness which pretends everything’s OK for a couple of days, but for actual Christmas, the Christmas story you find in the Bible. It isn’t a sweet sentiment to warm your heart: it’s got harsh edges of misunderstanding, malice, and murder – it is equal to the times in which we live. It isn’t even meant to be an inspiring story to encourage you to live a better life. Christmas is the news that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. Though we had shut Him out – and we all do this through ignoring, disbelieving, rejecting, going our own way and then complaining at Him when things go wrong - though we had shut Him out, He crowbarred Himself into our world. And a baby was born in Bethlehem.

Jesus is God’s crowbar

Could anything be less crowbar-like than a baby? My 10-week-old niece is incredibly floppy and flexible, she can fall asleep in any position, at any combination of angles of neck, back, arms and legs. But within the soft flesh of the newborn Jesus is God’s unbending resolve to be with us, to rescue us, the break the mess and death which we’ve seen so clearly ruling our world and ourselves this year.

Jesus is God’s crowbar, a more subtle tool than we might imagine. If God had come to us in all His glory, blasting the doors of the world off with the full force of His majesty, none of us could have got close to Him. So, He came as one of us, and we sing at our carol services, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” He’s too glorious, too great, to be comprehend – let alone approached – unless He covered Himself with flesh like us. Now we can see and understand what God is like: loving, forgiving, certain, self-sacrificing, unconquerable.

Jesus is God’s crowbar, a more fragile instrument than we would have chosen. He is famous for His weakness, from being a vulnerable baby to a man hanging on a cross, gasping His last breaths. Yet it is only through this life lived among us as one of us, and His death for us, that we can approach God.

Leonard Cohen, one of those who died this year, put it like this: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I’m saying that Jesus is God’s crowbar who makes the crack, forces it open, and He is God’s light shining among us.

That idea of light breaking in is something you find again and again in the Christmas story. Isaiah 9 promised it: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” It’s what the shepherds experienced when a dazzling crowd of angels appeared to them in the middle of the night. It’s what the wise men followed to get to Bethlehem: a new shining star in the heavens. And, though it’s a lot later in the story, not for nothing does Jesus rise from the dead at the dawn of the day. God makes a crack in everything; His Son, the light, comes in.

How will you respond to God breaking in?

Maybe you’re like one of the shepherds, with absolutely no expectation or interest prior to this. They didn’t have time for religious stuff, their focus was entirely on doing their job – looking after the sheep, and staying warm. Normal, everyday life. But suddenly something happens that causes them to leave the sheep behind. Because when God breaks in, everything has to change.

Perhaps you’re more of a wise man or woman. You have been searching for the truth, looking out for what is good. Maybe this mess of a year has helped you see the promise of progress for what it is: a baseless hope that’s a hostage to fortune. You’re exploring, you want to know more, you’ve got questions that demand answers. It might feel like a long journey but I promise you that it is worth it when you follow the signs that have been given. Because when God breaks in, our searching has its destination.

Or maybe the character in the story who most fits with you is Herod. (Of course no-one is going to volunteer for this association!) He was the king in the land, successful and powerful but never secure. When he heard about God breaking in, it felt destructive and dangerous: it was like a light being switched on first thing on a dark morning, assaulting your eyes. His trust in himself, in his own abilities and efforts, was under threat. He didn’t want to see it, he didn’t want it to be true, so he closed his eyes and his mind to what God was doing. Because when God breaks in, everyone has a decision to make.

God won't crowbar Himself into your life but there are times when He knocks loudly on our door. Whether this is an unexpected interruption, or a long looked-for answer; whether you want to hear it, or it threatens to ruin your life, please explore this for yourself. You can keep your focus festive by seeing which of Glen Scrivener's Four Kinds of Christmas you associate yourself with, you could ask a Christian friend why they believe what they do, or you could get hold of a copy of one of the eyewitness accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and see Jesus for yourself.

This change Jesus brings and begins now is why there are so many people around the world singing carols with joy and confidence, whatever is going on in the world and their lives. He has broken in to our world and is with us. We have hope now and forever, for He has lived with us, died for us, and lives again eternally.

Whether you have as many pickles and as much mayonnaise as you like over this Christmas period, whether you’re feeling shaken or you’re starting to see the cracks of the crowbar breaking in, I wish you a very happy Christmas.