Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Bulls and doves: equally useless

This morning we started reading Leviticus. It starts where Exodus ended - as a narrative and in terms of theme. God’s people have access to his presence; access is only allowed through blood sacrifice. So the depth of grace and the sinfulness of sin are brought home, and brought home, and brought home... 

What hit me with fresh power today is the breath-taking equality of it all. We go by stages from the one who brings a bull to the one who brings a pigeon. There is no change in the seriousness of the text, no alteration in the ritual description of what the sacrifice means: ‘It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.’ Each worshipper comes into the presence of God equally. 

Discounting the current soaring prices in the Chinese racing pigeon market, the difference between a bull and a pigeon is vast. Modern markets can't be equated with biblical times, but current bull prices from $4000 to 20 000 guineas (various sites) compare rather impressively from a live “fancier’s” pigeon starting from £10 - £40 or a wood pigeon for its meat from £3.25. 

I can think of no context where such a disparity in value would not make one iota of difference. One man brings his Mercedes E class; the other brings his Matchbox model - both are welcome. One man offers his riverside penthouse; the other brings his tent - both are accepted equally. Sadly this is a lesson that the church needs to learn and relearn; the principle is here in Leviticus 1, but that doesn't stop James having to hammer it home all over again. 

But the glory of this egalitarianism in Leviticus is not that God chooses to ignore differential values. It isn’t that he kindly overlooks the disparity in a commitment to fairness. It goes deeper. The various sacrifices actually are of the same value in terms of their purpose in that context. All are equally valueless. It is impossible for the blood of a bull, or sheep, or dove, to take away sin and make for safe entry into the presence of the holy God. There is no differentiation. 

The sacrifices were demonstrations of faith and hope in the gracious, forgiving and providing God of Israel. They pointed to the seriousness of sin, they pointed to the need of atonement, but, for any Israelite who really thought about it, they could never be sufficient. The authentic provision was still ahead, glimpsed and longed for, and trusted in advance. 

The equality of bull, sheep and pigeon in Leviticus 1 is not down to an egalitarian principle only. Not that there is anything wrong with egalitarianism, but cart mustn’t drive horse. The equality of the sacrifices is down to the one, once-for-all, unique, sufficient, every-kind-of-people’s-sin-atoning sacrifice to which they pointed. Bull, lamb and dove are equal because of Jesus. 

There is one mediator, one sacrifice, one atonement, one propitiation for the whole world. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, whatever we have - we have one place to go, one cross to look to, one Saviour to call to, one equal and glorious hope. You may own farms and factories, hotels and shipping lines; you may have nothing but the grubby clothes you slept in on the pavement last night - either way, you need to know God, and God has given the sacrifice that all of us, equally, need. 

So glad of that. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Don't be weirder than you have to be

Years ago I was very struck by a comment from Dick Lucas: Christians are weird anyway; be careful not to make yourselves more weird than you have to be. 

There is so much truth in that. The gospel in the modern world - and the postmodern world - is pretty weird. Centrality of the cross? Physical resurrection? Second coming? Judgement of the living and the dead? Pretty heavy, all of it!

Peter tells us to (2 Pet 1:5) add to our faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 

Dick's warning was against our tendency to add to our faith extreme political views, or quirky dietary fads, or irrational fear of scientists, or wacko conspiracy theories. Don't make yourself odder instead of godlier. 

Especially, do not promulgate these views with a vehemence that parallels your passion for Christ's gospel. You may believe that vaccination is satanic, or that rubbing crushed eggshell into your scrotum is a surefire cure for your prostate problem, but please don't elevate it (the opinion, that is) to rival the free offer of justification by faith in your panoply of opinions. 

Some believers are so passionate about everything, including the most awful eccentricities, that they are persuasive about nothing. 

But then, if that's you, I suppose you already have me down as a pathetic compromiser anyway. For which I guess the cure is a kale, rhubarb leaf and kelp smoothie. Cheers, everyone! 

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Thoughts from a dinner at the House

So, the question goes out from our host: "If you were prime minister, what would you do about corruption?" I gulp; I'm only at the event as photographer, and am going to be the fourth person to answer as the question travels anti-clockwise round the table. I consider various lightly humorous responses and decide (as ever) to go for the jugular. 

"I would need powers somewhat bigger than the PM, but I would want to get everyone to recognise that the problem starts with them."

There is a moment of silence around the table (stunned? embarrassed, more probably!) and the noble host speaks. "I think you would have to be God." At least he's got it. 

The gathering is a small one, drawing together journalists, human rights campaigners and business leaders, particularly from the digital world, to discuss the massive challenge of global corruption. These are people who know that The Panama Papers are the tip of the iceberg. They talk quite seriously about the global black economy growing as large as legitimate money. They are conscious of the ongoing "hot war" between the USA, Russia and China, with each side blasting holes in each other every day, all by internet. 

Possible solutions from the putative "prime ministers" are thoughtful and informed. Encryption, transparency, campaigning for the freedom of specific incarcerated whistle-blowers: all are mooted. The conversation continues to be "whole table" after the round of that first question is done. We eat and listen; GCHQ and the Balkans, the three principles for steaming open the citizens' letters, the selling of London properties to oligarchs, the trafficking of drugs, women and arms. 

After our host has to go the conversation breaks down into small groups around the table, but is still fascinating and fruitful. People are meeting for the first time who have been emailing for years. This is physical networking of digital people. I take photographs. 

Corruption in our world is real. It is huge. It affects ordinary people. One of my most illuminating conversations of the evening is with a waitress - appropriate as we are both there to serve, not really as guests. She has a typically Brazilian name and lilt in her English. She has the face of a Bahian but the accent of a Gaucha, and, sure enough, she is from Porto Alegre. "My family have moved out into the hills to get away from the crime and violence, but you can't really." There it is in a nutshell: the impact of big crime at the little person level. 

One of the saddest insights out of the evening for me is the way our own country is the beneficiary of global crime. Dirty money comes to Britain, and we are still committed to not asking too many questions. The scale is large: if the UK government did something really serious about international corruption, the standard of living of ordinary people in the UK would be affected. I guess we won't be electing such a government any time soon. 

The other insight bears directly on our EU membership. To beat massive, organised, internet-based crime needs international cooperation. There is no partnership without commitment and some relinquishing of "sovereignty" for the good of the partners. That is how a marriage works - or rather doesn't these days: is our lack of desire to give and contribute in our international relations a symptom of the same selfishness that spells doom for so many of our marriages?

Whatever the truth of that, I stand by my "prime ministerial solution". If global corruption ends up hurting little people, it also starts with little people. The problem, as Chesterton said, is me.  The difference is one of scale and opportunity, not of principle. We need measures against corruption, but the best measure of all would be transformation of people.

I think of the customers who quibble and push for a cash deal - "can we lose the VAT" - the very people who would undoubtedly moan loudly about "corruption in the EU". And I think of the temptations and desires that writhe around inside me too. The Internet has created a conduit, a world of opportunity, a platform for  corruption such as the world has never glimpsed before. But the problem is not the Internet. The problem is us. And no Prime Minister can put hearts right, cleanse our consciences or forgive us our sins. 

Thankfully, I know a Man who can.