No Stairway to Heaven

By Ben Swift

“Faith in God transcends reason as it flows from the heart and the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of.” (Blaise Pascal)

It’s an interesting thing to stop and reflect on what it means for something to flow from the heart. Perhaps Pascal’s idea speaks to us because deep down we all struggle as human beings to align all of logic and reason with our human emotions. We are, after all, more closely related to Captain Kirk than to Spock. While we might know something to be true within our minds, our hearts can seem to whisper alternative words of wisdom into our being, often blurring the lines between the choices we must make.

There’s a popular saying in western society, “If it feels good, do it.” The problem with this saying is that short term, temporary pleasure can often lead to long term harm. It can lay the foundation to a path that subtly veers away from the heart of God. When it comes to opening windows to our souls, we must be careful about who and what we let in. John Lennon may have pointed us to seek Mother Mary for wisdom but the truth is better found in the Word of God.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4: 24-27)

When it comes to music, how are we to guard our hearts in this way?

Rock band ‘Kiss’ once filled the airways with the lyrics, “God gave rock and roll to you… put it in the soul of everyone.” While we could debate the truth of these words, there is something special about music; a divinely inspired art that alludes the analytical dissection of the neuroscientist’s scalpel. Music has the power to draw you in, speak to your inner being, call you to be a part of it and it a part of you.

For the Christian, one who seeks to live by the truth of Christ, this power that music holds can be both a source of enrichment but also of tension. Here lies the dilemma. When it comes to choosing our associations with music, where shall we draw our lines? And who gets to forge these lines, the self or God? And to top this off, how can we even tell who’s guiding the stick in the sand when almost every perspective can be justified with scriptural quotes manipulated to support a particular point of view?

When considering division within churches, music is surely one of the most common sources of division. But why? While there may be several explanations for this, the reason people feel so strongly when it comes to music is in the way it is played. These 12 notes in their various arrangements are closely tied to the emotions of the heart, whether we like to admit it or not. We could put on our Spock masks at this point and explain these musical tensions as generational biases or theological issues with the lyrics – both of which can hold some truth – but if we bail on Spock for a moment and invite Kirk back in, we will see more clearly that music is powerful in its ability to take us on different emotional journeys. While music may be soul food, not everybody thrives on the same diet.

As created human beings we have all been blessed with God-given potential in whatever form that might be. But if your potential is musical, how should your potential be developed and used? How far can you take and mold this potential before it is no longer about the glory of God but rather the glory of humanity? Surely these must eventually become the theological musings of all musos desiring to serve God?

When the philosophical dust settles however, it’s all about ‘glory’. If a star is born then let that star be a beacon that points to Christ. It’s not that Christ needs us to bring glory to himself or to the Father, rather it’s that we who have been called to him should feel compelled to acknowledge who he is and who we are in relation to him. The focus of how we live, the music we listen to and play, should be shaped in the light of this reality.

Let us remember that God lists joy amongst the fruits of the spirit. The joy that comes from music is a gift. Whether as a player or a listener, open up to some soul food. Let music do what it does best, expressing the reasonings of the heart that reason knows nothing about.

‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ (Martin Luther)

Beyond the Minefield

By Ben Swift

‘Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

‘Risk taking’ seems to be a buzz term floating around the corporate and educational worlds of late. But risk taking in these contexts is far from the risk taking of the past. For those who grew up on old school playground equipment harbouring the risk of third degree burns as steel bars were superheated under the summer sun, or potential arsenic poisoning as splinters from the treated logs lodged into your blood stream, modern risk taking takes on a whole new meaning. Much of the old risk taking has been bubble wrapped and isolated from our well-protected lives.

While the laws of society may be protecting us from the freedom of risks such as those found in old school playgrounds, a different form of risk has evolved for the modern, western citizen. This risk often goes undetected until a person learns the hard way the price of breaking unwritten laws about what is politically correct to say in an ever-growing minefield of contexts. Terms of speech that were once perfectly polite and acceptable are now being angrily thrown back into the faces of those falling behind the current social benchmarks of acceptability.

I recently heard from a man who took the great risk of ordering a coffee on a flight to Canada. When asked by the air hostess how he would like his coffee, he answered, “White with one please.” No sooner had he put in his request he was advised that applying the terms ‘white’ or ‘black’ to coffee was completely unacceptable in this racially sensitive age. Shocked by this, the man who was of Indian descent and well aware of racial issues, became confused about how then to order his coffee. What could he say that would be less of a risk in offending any group of people? Did he need to explain that he would like his portion of coffee beans to be crushed, dissolved in boiling water with about 10ml of milk added?

Surely when it becomes a risk to use harmless words to describe how you would like your coffee in the off chance of breaking the unwritten, socially acceptable conventions of a group, there’s no other explanation, the world’s gone mad!

While it’s true that we all run the risk of unintentionally causing insult as our freedom of speech is narrowed by those who seek to protect seemingly every group other than those that follow Christ, how do those risks affect Christians?

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias once suggested, “Truth by definition excludes.” This statement perhaps sums up the risk taking dilemma faced by those who seek to follow the truth of Christ in a world where truth is whatever you want it to be.

Surely to follow Christ is to risk offending anyone who seeks affirmation and acceptance for a lifestyle or belief system that sits outside biblical teaching?

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

When Jesus claimed to be the exclusive way to God, he knew very well that for his people this would cause division and hardship. Why else does he refer to the Christian life as one that involves taking up a cross?

“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:32-34)

When it comes to Christianity, there’s no escaping the flow on effect of subjecting your life to the exclusive truth that is Christ as revealed in Scripture. If the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are to be read, interpreted and understood as the Word of God, there must be a flow on effect as we listen to God speaking into the way we live, inwardly, outwardly, collectively and individually.

It is here that the risk is no longer a risk but a guarantee of rejection from the world. If we stand for Christ exclusively, without carefully selecting which sections of Scripture we agree with and disregarding what remains, we will stand apart from the world. The divisiveness that Christ spoke about is not the result of his intention to destroy relationships but rather that, out of love, he calls people to stand apart from the world in truth so that they may live in his saving grace.

When what is being normalised in society lies in contradiction to the teachings of Christ, what will we do? When issues associated with injustice, sexuality, education, politics and religion confront us, where will we turn for answers? To make this even more difficult the institution of the church too often creates confusion that leads to divisiveness by conforming to the pressures of the surrounding culture; trading the rock of Christ for the sandy foundation of the world.

As the seasons of life continue to change, bringing new and recycled issues to our doorsteps we need to remember that our responses do involve risks. The question is how do we weigh up those risks and what are the costs? It may just come down to some heated discussion but it also may become the tipping point between truth, life and death.

The good news however is that the human right to life found in Christ alone is a right that cannot be taken away, even if it becomes politically incorrect; even in death.

Set Free

By Ben Swift

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear! – Nina Simone

There’s an old proverb that suggests that as pressure makes diamonds, a situation where a person is placed under pressure enables them to demonstrate their full potential.

While it may be true that diamonds – crystals of pure carbon formed under the influence of high temperatures and extreme pressure – sparkle with beauty, human beings, although carbon-based life forms, do not always shine when under extreme pressure. In fact, the varying, unrelenting demands and pressures of life for seemingly unending periods of time can lead to chronic stress, a far cry from the alluring nature of a diamond.

While the Christian life by no means provides an escape route from the reality of the pressures of life, it does throw hope into the mix; a light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.

There are many stories of people who throughout history have shown remarkable resilience in the darkest of circumstances. But what is it that enables some people to endure the unendurable? What fuels the souls of the seemingly unbreakable in the face of intense adversity?

Film makers have often been good at addressing these questions as they go to great lengths to portray the lives of people living through extreme circumstances. The fictional film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ perceptively illustrates the power of genuine hope found in a place where most would succumb to the seemingly helpless situation they find themselves in. The main character, Andy Dufresne, a falsely convicted murderer, finds himself in a prison where abuse of all kinds routinely runs rampant. Something is different about Andy, however. As his friend and fellow inmate, Red, describes, “He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.”

While this character’s hope came from a fictional place there have been many accounts of people who have attributed their psychological, spiritual and mental survival in places such as war camps and prison cells to the hope they have in Christ and the freedom that accompanies this hope.

Thankfully not all people are subject to the extremes of torture, starvation and abuse as occur in war and prison. No human being is exempt however, when it comes to the struggles of life and certainly no one can escape from themselves. Isn’t it true that wherever you go, wherever you try to hide, there you will be? The older one becomes, the more this reality will have set in and left its mark. Perhaps this is why we so often see or imagine greener grass on the far side of the hill only to find it ruined shortly after arrival by the dragging shackles of the ‘self’. Is it no wonder then that the Scriptures teach us that we must die to self in order that we may live?

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

When life appears as a vast ocean in which we struggle to stay afloat, how comforting it is to feel a solid foundation under our feet. The waves may continue to envelop us with their wild fury but the rock on which we stand holds us tall and steady in the white wash; our emerging faces finding comfort in the warm glow of the sunshine above. On Christ the solid rock we stand; a foundation of truth eternally anchored in the Triune God. This truth, God’s enduring, unchanging truth, cannot be moved or broken. Rest and salvation available to the exhausted water treader being pulled every which way by the currents of life, trying desperately to maintain control in their own strength.

Surely this is the truth of which Martin Luther King spoke as he powerfully proclaimed, “So if the Son [Christ] sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

It is the reality of who we are in Christ that has the power to set us free from any situation in which we may find ourselves as we come to the realization that he is with us in all circumstances. There is nothing that can be done to us that can put an end to this reality. The world and even death have been defeated. When Jesus uttered his final words before giving up his spirit on the cross, he confirmed, “It is finished.” (John 19:30) The word finished in this part of Scripture means, ‘paid in full’.

The apostle Paul truly understood the power of hope in Christ as he often suffered for his faith. It is for this reason we can be encouraged by his words:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

While the unrelenting pressures of this life may not make diamonds out of us, we have something immeasurably more valuable than any precious jewel – the chance to really live for something infinitely bigger than ourselves. Here we find hope. Here we are set free. Here we live in Christ.

Dark and Light

By Ben Swift

“For many in our high-paced world, despair is not a moment; it is a way of life.” (Ravi Zacharias)

As Christians we are taught that Christ is our light and we are to be reflectors of His light to the world; a world that hides from the light, only to stumble around in the confusion of darkness.

“In him [Christ] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1: 4-5)

But how deep a hole do we have to find ourselves in before the light no longer penetrates to a point where we can be guided by it, to absorb its life-giving power and to reflect it to those around us?

These types of existential questions are nothing new though. I suspect they are as ancient as the fall of humanity. They are, however, questions we need to confront as Christians before the darkness that infuses our minds consumes the healthy grey matter. Take for example the words of the Sons of Korah:

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my saviour and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

The world in which many of us live, high-paced and corporately driven, is unapologetically non-conducive to the way Christ teaches us to live; a life eternally connected with our Creator. Is it no wonder mental health is such an overwhelming and growing problem impacting directly or indirectly possibly anyone we meet, including the person in the mirror?

Has anyone on their journey through life not questioned how they have somehow arrived at this unforeseen and possibly unbearable destination that is the present? If we could only wind back the hands of time, correct the irreversible consequences of our naïve choices. The hole we find ourselves in may not be our intended situation but nevertheless the machine that is western society more often than not holds us tight in its grip.

As we attend church services on Sunday mornings we are often challenged about the way we live and how much time we dedicate to God but any glint of enthusiasm to change our ways is often snuffed out before we even leave the carpark. The worries of this world, of this life, seem to have us by the scruff.

It’s as though every time we try and fill some of our hole with a shovel full of soil, the world sends in a high-powered digging machine to take us deeper.

Karl Barth in his commentary, ‘The Epistle to the Romans’, puts it this way: “Bereft of understanding and left to themselves, men are at the mercy of the dominion of the meaningless powers of the world; for our life in this world has meaning only in its relation to the true God.”

There is only one ultimate way out of this dilemma; one way to bring light back into our lives and to start living for the purpose we were created for. Something must be sacrificed. Time, wealth, possessions, popularity, all of those potential idols that the world assures us maketh the person. How can we possibly seek to spend time with God, listening to his voice and leaning on his truth, if all of our time is spent chasing the things that are here today and gone tomorrow?

“And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

Deep down humanity craves meaning and that meaning, if we openly receive it, has been revealed to us in Christ. We must open our eyes and minds to the light that shines through what Christ has to say and we can’t do this if we continue to let the world deepen our hole, filling it with all-consuming darkness.

When the darkness in our lives impacts our grey matter and even our soul’s core, the load can seem too much to bear. Christ knows this all too well but he, unlike the gods we must strive to measure up to, reaches out to us with words of everlasting comfort that cannot be found to exist outside of his Grace. This is the comfort that can only be offered by a God who knows us intimately because he created us with love and purpose in mind.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30)

These are words to cling to; words that shine light into the dark holes in which we often reside. Let them bring meaning to your life in a way that nothing else can. In the end a life rooted in Christ is the only real life and when we live out of tune with our Father’s song, we should not be surprised by the impact that darkness can have on the wellness of our souls.

Painted Black

By Ben Swift

“When evil justifies itself by posturing as morality, God becomes the devil and the devil, God. That exchange makes one impervious to reason.” (Zacharias)

It would be hard to believe that anyone could deny the fact that evil has a real presence in this world. One doesn’t have to travel far through the pages of history to find extraordinarily cruel cases of evil.

Take communist Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, for example. In his time of political leadership an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or exhaustion. Evil however is at its most obvious in cases like these but disturbingly, it can be found lurking in the hearts of every human being; the inherited seed of our most ancient ancestors.

The Rolling Stones song, ‘Paint It Black’, reflectively portrays the darker side of the human heart, continually being blackened by the evil we are all exposed to on a daily basis. Consider the following key lines:

‘I look inside myself and see my heart is black…..It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black.’

This is why Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias in his book, Deliver Us from Evil, suggests that evil is not just where blood has been spilled but rather it is in the self-absorbed human heart.

Many theologians and philosophers have struggled and wrestled with the question of where evil came from. In other words, who or what was the author of evil?

Theology suggests that sin came into the world through one sin but the question still remains, how was this able to occur when all of creation as described in Genesis was declared to be good by the all-powerful and loving Creator Himself?

Did God create evil? Did God intend evil? How else could evil have made its way into creation in order to bring it down?

While it’s understood that sin came through one human act of rebellion towards God, the temptation to sin in this way was prompted by Satan (Genesis 3). For this to be true, evil must have already existed in Satan. It would make sense then to learn a little more about who Satan is. Jesus uses the following description of him:

“He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

Satan, along with other fallen angels whom he leads, were cast out of Heaven – God’s realm – to await final judgement. The mind of Satan and all his demon allies are permanently set to oppose God, goodness, truth, the kingdom of Christ, and the welfare of human beings. He has real but limited power and as Calvin once phrased, drags his chains wherever he goes and can never hope to overcome God. (Packer)

Despite Satan being completely at odds with God, he is not like God. Their opposing natures cannot be thought of as dualistic, yin-yang type entities. Only God is eternal in that only He has always existed. Satan is His creation and all of His creation was created by and for Himself. For if Satan wasn’t created by God, then by who? And if there was another all-powerful creator responsible for Satan, there would also need to be a realm within which God is not in control. According to Scriptures that cannot be true.

“For by Him all things were created: the things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1: 16)

Importantly, “Everything created by God is good.” (1 Timothy 4:4) and “This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

As the Scriptures testify, God made everything good according to His perfect light but something went terribly wrong. Somehow darkness made its way into creation and there is only one legitimate explanation.

If the perfect loving relationship that has eternally existed in the Trinity is to be reflected in mankind back to the God whose image he bears, freedom to love must be allowed to exist. For without the freedom to love, love is meaningless; simply an act of predetermined obedience. When it comes to freedom, however, there must be an available flip side. It is through this freedom that love can become hate, obedience can become rebellion, light can become darkness. And so the story unfolded and continues to play out to this day. No fallen creature is exempt from the aftershock of Satan’s fall from God’s presence into ours, and the day that human beings tried to assume the position of becoming their own God.

Did God create Satan to be evil? Absolutely not! His evil arose from within; from the heart of the father of all lies.

Did God create human beings to enact evil in order to bring about His purposes? No! But He certainly can and has used what man has intended for evil to bring about His purposes.

In the end we can’t shift the blame for the sin that we personally bring into this world. We, as free human beings, have the ability to make choices and must live with the consequences of the wrong decisions of both ourselves and others. Here the relationship between evil, sin and suffering become painfully apparent; world history highlighting time and again what twisted hearts are capable of enacting even to the point of crucifying the Son of God.

It is only at this point, when we come to realise the depths to which evil has become intertwined with the hearts of humanity that we can fully understand the incomprehensible love and mercy shown by Christ as He paid the price for our sin, crushing evil and defeating Satan’s power once and for all through His death and resurrection. Certainly God is not responsible for evil but rather responsible for the unique hope of Christianity in that we can join with Jesus in saying, “It is finished!”

Fear

By Ben Swift

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

Anyone who has ever stood in close proximity to a great male lion – the king of the beasts – and looked into its majestic, yet terrifying face would awaken a sense of fear of what such a beast is capable. The roar of a lion can send thunderous vibrations through the ground on which you stand, indeed through your very being. To come face to face with a hungry lion in the wild would elicit such fear that any normal human being could only freeze and be subject to the desires of this beast. Perhaps this explains why the lion was chosen by C.S. Lewis as the character for Aslan.

While Lewis’ fictional character of Aslan the lion does provide us with some powerful imagery into the awesomeness and majesty of God, we would do well to consider that creatures such as the lion are just that; creatures.

In terms of fear then, are we Christians living in today’s world in danger of losing our sense of who God really is? Are we so blinded by theologies that allow us to create God into whatever image we desire, losing our fear of Him that is far greater than any beast?

Consider the following words from Jesus to His disciples:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

Surely true wisdom is to allow these words to penetrate deep within our understanding and consciousness. Who is man and who is God? Isn’t this the question of all questions? We need to continually ponder it, relying on the Holy Spirit to hold us to the truth that exists in its answer. The answer however, should not be sought simply philosophically or scientifically but theologically through what God has revealed to us about Himself. It all begins and ends with Christ as through His living Word the nature of the Triune God is revealed.

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14: 6)

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14: 9b)

If we consider the purpose of humanity as revealed in the Scriptures to be to live as image bearers of Christ and therefore to reflect the nature of our Creator back into the world, it would make sense to hold a healthy fear tied to a true understanding of the Creator and His creation. But is this the reality for the church of today, or even for those who claim to follow Christ?

We certainly don’t need to venture very far to see that the Church today does not consistently reflect the nature of God as revealed in Christ. One of the basic principles in reading and interpreting the Word is to interpret Scripture with Scripture but what about interpreting our Christian lives under the same lens. If the Christian life is reflecting cultural norms rather than standing apart from them, surely alarm bells should be ringing?

So why is it that we consistently live as though it is the world we have to fear rather than the One who created the world, holding sovereign power over it? Surely it must come down to human arrogance. C.S. Lewis cleverly puts it in these words:

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride….It was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”[1]

Pride or arrogance is easily developed and expressed as it comes so naturally to our fallen nature. Perhaps the most effective cure for this diseased state of mind is to be subject to an inescapable reality check, one that breathes life into our fear once more. Like the lion’s breath-taking roar, God can take us to this place as we listen to His voice speak through the Scriptures. The book of Job provides us with perhaps the most humbling starting point. Consider the words of God to Job as he was reminded of the answer to the ever important question of God and man:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38: 2-5)

What if God is asking all of us these questions? Listen to His voice. Brace yourself like a human because you are not God and He alone is all powerful. Like Job, all who claim to follow Christ must come to the same understanding of Job. That is, we must humbly develop a healthy fear of God, echoing Job’s response.

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, “Listen now and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 2-6)

Surely to know God is to love but also fear God; to listen to His voice; to shed our arrogance and to follow Christ in humility. Here lies true wisdom, foolishness to the world.

[1] Lewis. C.S., Mere Christianity, (C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1952) p. 69

The Gift of Christmas

By Ben Swift

Liquid and lungs swiftly part ways

As the Christ child gasps for breath in the world that He made

The Word that breathed life into all that has been

Now lay fully human that God may truly be seen

For knowing the Father is in knowing the Son

A divinely-gifted revelation wrapped in Trinitarian love

A frail, helpless child, His little eyes first awake

The eyes of a perfect saviour, born to suffer our rightful fate.