The Coals

If you want to take a picture of a big impressive fire

If you want to post it up online and likes are your desire

Be sure to take your photo when the fire’s just been lit

When flames are leaping up so high it’s sure to be a hit

But then, if warming up your hands or cooking are your goals

You’ll have to wait and let the fire burn down to its coals

For epic Insta-pictures and 1,000 Facebook likes

Won’t be enough to warm you up on dark and stormy nights

Sometimes the unimpressive things are better than the show

Sometimes the things you wait for are the best things you can know

On The Origin Of Humanity’s Superpower

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?”

So sang Sir Paul McCartney, and all it takes is a few minutes listening to the radio to prove him right. Same goes for silly rom-coms and royal weddings. For some reason, we humans get a bit silly over love. No matter how scientific our philosophy or cold and calculated our theory of existence, there’s nearly always someone in our lives who holds a mysterious power to break through our rigid shell into the gooey centre of our humanity where love is the unrivalled (and often unruly) ruler.

We love. It’s what humans do. The only real difference between us is where we each choose to direct our love: Some turn it in on themselves, while others turn it outward and upward. Still, the common thread of all humanity is this incredible ability to passionately, forcefully love with every fibre of our being.

It’s our superpower.

Our history, literature, and films have documented its use in detail, even in fantastic hypotheticals. And yet – where is the origin story? What explanation can we give for this fire burning in our blood? If it wasn’t a spider bite or an experiment gone wrong, how did it become so intensely strong that it can drive the most rational creatures on the planet to break our bodies and give our lives for the sake of a beautiful face or the colours on a flag?

If we listen to certain scientists, they calmly explain that what we call “love” is actually the inevitable result of meaningless mutations, chemical reactions, and survival instinct. This would make sense if all we ever loved was ourselves, but it makes utter nonsense of our monuments to strong heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the weak. Survival of the fittest? This origin story doesn’t make sense of us. Our superpower is not a cold-hearted advantage over others. We have a word for people who use power that way: villain. Heroes are always born of love: For nations, for cities, for friends, for family, for strangers – for others.

In all the world, there is only one origin story that does justice to the strength and centrality of our love: It is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine has certainly been the cause of head-scratching through the centuries as we try to understand how God can be one God in substance and nature, and yet exist in never-ending relationship between the three distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this mystery of the Trinity solves the mystery of us: It shows us that love is central to humanity because love is central to the nature of God. God created us as relational beings because God is a relational being. Why does our passion burn so hot? Because it was kindled in the furnace of God himself. No other concept of God or theory of human beginnings can tell us why it is that we long so desperately to know and be known, to love and be loved. But if the God who made us in his image is himself relational by nature, then he could even be a God whose love is strong enough to cause him to give his life for the sake of humans who rebelled against him. If you want to know why the symbol of the cross is the most common monument on the planet, look no further than this: it is the place where the origin of love became love’s ultimate expression.

Heaven Isn’t A Place On Earth

This week our family boarded a plane to head home to Ireland after some weeks in America. The airports along the way were full of holiday-makers going this way or that, some just setting out, others returning sporting deeper tans and new sunglasses. Eventually, whenever they all get to wherever it is they call home, they’ll be met by a welcome party of work, school, and responsibilities that have been patiently awaiting them. As the tan lines fade and sunglasses collect dust, the desktop background picture of big smiles in the sand may seem increasingly like a taunt. Or maybe like an impossible invitation: “If only I could live there all the time, I would always be that happy!” The invitation seems to be proven more and more with every holiday. But the invitation is a lie. The holiday-makers going both directions on our airplane are proof: if one side of the ocean was the perfection of bliss, why would they feel the need to take their holidays on the other? If we actually did follow the invitation and move ourselves permanently to the dreamiest beach on google images, what would we find there? More sunshine, more sand, and more people who are not so very different to the people we left behind. We would also find more bills and to-do lists, grocery shopping, schools, and government tax offices – all remarkably similar to the places we know, once you get behind the regional architecture. Now, I’m not saying that every place is exactly the same. There are significant differences between life in North Korea and life in Kansas. But good citizens of Kansas, with all their Wal-marts and BBQs, still feel the need to take holidays in the Caribbean. And people in the Caribbean still take their children to Disney World in Florida. And I know a former Disney Princess who took a holiday in China.

God himself was the first to take a holiday when he rested on the seventh day after creating the cosmos. In doing this, he set the pattern that those made in his image are not invented to be constantly running work machines. In the Bible, Hebrews 4 tells us that God also uses these days of rest to point us beyond this broken world to the ultimate rest won for God’s adopted children through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Until then, the kind of rest we’re longing for can only be found in tantalizing tasters. Belinda Carlisle may sing about how “heaven is a place on earth”, but good luck trying to find it. There is no secret corner of this world where life is always good, people are always kind, bugs never bite, and governments are always benevolent. We get just enough to dream of it, but never enough to be satisfied. The whole planet is broken. All the holidays in the calendar can’t change that. And yet, for those who put their trust in Christ, holidays can point our eyes forward to his promises: This life may be a work week full of frustration and pain, but Sunday is coming!

Is Ireland Free?

There is a dispute opening up in Ireland between the government and Catholic hospitals, who have recently said they have a moral objection to performing abortions. The government, who is working now to legislate for abortion, has responded that hospitals who receive public funds must follow the law of the land, and that only individuals can be recognized as having the ability to hold conscientious objections. In saying this, the government seems to have forgotten that hospitals are not merely buildings full of inhuman healing machines, but are rather associated groups of individuals – individuals who do in fact hold moral beliefs. The government has also ignored the precedent set in 44 States in America, the American Medical Association, and a 2010 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stating that “No person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion.”

What these allowances recognize is the fact that groups of people are (not surprisingly) still people. If a union of government employees, living off government money, agrees to demand higher wages or better working conditions, their desires are not disqualified from being real desires simply because they are presenting them as a union. If an aid organization who receives government grants decides to challenge the government on their work policy for refugees, their moral concerns are not invalidated by the fact that they are holding them together as an organization. As a more direct example, let’s say the Irish government builds a charity hospital (with some funding from the host country) in a place where female genital mutilation is the law of the land. Will the government of Ireland submit to provide this service in their hospital? Will their moral objection be disqualified because, as a government, they are acting as a group so cannot be said to have a conscience? No. Yet if the government reserves for itself the right to hold moral opinions, how can it deny the same to other groups? It seems that in every case except this one, we recognize that groups of people are still people who can hold opinions, moral beliefs, and yes, even have conscience.

Ordering Catholic hospitals to provide what they believe is the intentional destruction of innocent children turns out to be no less tyrannical than ordering the doctors individually, because in ordering the group you are in fact only ordering individual people after all. Is it really so surprising that a group who associated itself for the express purpose of healing has an objection to being told it must destroy? Would a truly free and tolerant society enforce such a thing with all the weight of government power? Can Ireland continue to call itself a free republic if we limit when and where people are allowed to have a conscience?

Of Death & Life

After attending the funeral of an extended family member this week, I was once again reminded of the short span of my own life. The funeral was more than a recognition of the reality of death, though, and more than a celebration of a life well lived: it was also a celebration of a sure hope beyond the grave. As the apostle Paul said: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I found a little graveyard

The grass grown up so high

On beds of now-forgotten folk

Whose names are scrubbed by Time

A few more days

A few more breaths

And I will join them here

And grass will grow

And time erase –

My name will disappear

But if your grandkids find me there

There’s no need for dismay

My Saviour broke the power of death

And I’ll be Home to stay

I Can’t Be Anything I Want To Be (And That’s Okay)

If you believe, you can achieve.

Evidently, if you believe hard enough and long enough, you can even fly – that’s what I heard on the radio. Metaphorically, this is encouraging. Practically, it’s still annoyingly impossible, no matter how strongly I imagine myself butterflying above the ground. The kind of advice that tells us we can be anything we want to be is meant to be inspiring, to encourage us to try difficult things, and help us push through to reach our goals even when it’s hard. The slogans sound so great and fit so well in songs and movies and books and memes and posters that it’s easy to overlook that one pesky little drawback of how none of them are true.

It’s really no secret: I can’t be anything I want to be. I will never be five again or win a beauty pageant. Never know what it feels like to be a dolphin. Never swing from webbing in New York like Spider-Man. There’s actually an astonishing number of things I can never be, when it comes right down to brass tacks (and including brass tacks). But that’s not the point, is it? These sayings were never meant to encourage us to become dolphins – they were meant to inspire achievement, to spur us on to greatness. And yet, I am fully aware that no matter how hard and long and deeply I believe, I will never have the voice of Frank Sinatra or handle a soccer ball like Messi. At the risk of being a cultural heretic, I say clearly: I have limitations. I know we’re not supposed to speak of such things. If we do, we’re meant to speak only of breaking them. But as humans, we have limitations that aren’t going away. Even Usain Bolt can’t run as fast as a common warthog. As for me, my eyes aren’t fit for a career as an astronaut, but I don’t feel the loss very often. My grasp of physics rules me out of making any discoveries like Einstein’s, but I’m not losing sleep over it. We’ll get along alright without another Messi or Sinatra, too, which is good news for people like me who are not on track for achieving the massive greatness we’re told to set our sights on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing at all against massive greatness. There are a few people who really do great things that really deserve that level of recognition. There are times when a determination to break barriers has had wonderful results and changed the course of history for the better. But I reject the idea that aiming for impossible goals and achieving them anyway is the only path to a successful and fulfilling life. Some limitations can and should be broken, but as humans we will always have a long list under “can’t”. Is that really so bad? Even if our limitations keep us from recognised greatness, none of them can keep us from what is more important: loving God and others. I don’t have to be an astronaut to know the God who made the stars. I don’t have to be Einstein to love my neighbour as myself. I don’t have to be Messi to kick the soccer ball with my son, or Sinatra to sing show tunes with my daughter. I don’t have to be as fast as a warthog to visit someone in pain. My limitations might frame my life in a way that makes it seem quite small and ordinary, but remember: The greatest masterpiece in the world is a normal looking woman named Mona Lisa, half-smiling out of a surprisingly small frame. I’m not worried about how big or small the frame around my own life is: I’m much more interested in making sure I will live well inside it.

The Freedom In Forgetting

The elephants at Belfast Zoo were rocking. As soon as we turned the corner and saw them, we had to laugh. They looked like they were grooving to their favourite tunes on invisible headphones, and we started trying to figure out what song could make elephants dance like that. The game stopped, though, when we read the sign: these elephants had been rescued from captivity and hard labour. They had spent years working in logging camps and circuses, and had gotten used to being chained up whenever they were not working. The rocking had nothing to do with dance music: It was a coping mechanism, because for much of their lives, they couldn’t do anything else.

The backstory explained a lot, except this: The chains are gone now. The elephants live in a generous enclosure at Belfast Zoo, with plenty of room to move around and do whatever it is that pachyderms like to do best. And yet they rock in place, just as stationary as if the chains still held them. Over time, the chains had achieved more than their purpose of holding the elephant’s legs. They had somehow reached much deeper, locking their minds in captivity as well. And we all know that elephants never forget. Even after many years of relative freedom, the massive animals still live in self-imposed bondage, restricted only by their own habits. Their prison came with them in their heads, even though the actual chains on their legs were broken long ago.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the elephants, though. How many times have I, like them, been stuck in the grip of events long past? How often does my own mind rock in the ruts of past tragedies, broken relationships, personal mistakes and failures? Sometimes, rocking in my invisible chains is more comfortable than exploring unknown freedoms. But it won’t get me anywhere. I can catch myself thinking that a change in the weather is all I need to fix whatever is wrong in my life – a better environment, a different location, the removal of difficult people, the removal of the chains I’m tired of wearing. But the elephants teach me that I actually need much more than just the external freedom of happy circumstances. Even if I somehow get everything I want, I won’t be able to enjoy the freedom of it if I’m living under the constant weight of guilt, regret, sorrow, and broken habits from the past. The fact is, people living in the very best of circumstances can still shuffle through life in invisible chains that are heavy enough to crush them. Yet hope remains: even though we invented the chains when we ran away from him, our Creator has crafted the key. At the cost of his own life, he has shattered the powerful chains of the broken past and won for us the incredible freedom of being able to forget the past knowing that all that is wrong can be forgiven and all that is broken can be restored. The question for me, and for us, is simple: will I step into the wild, unpredictable freedom of trusting and following my Liberator, or stay in the stationary, steadily rocking comfort of my own memory?

The apostle Paul had the right idea:

“…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)