The Parable of the Mysterious Stranger

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance – indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.

They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’ Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him; but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, The Stranger knows best.’

Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.’

Basil Mitchell

You can read more analysis of this in its original context here.

Reflections on Covid-19

I don’t know what I’m going to write. This post is for my “Christian Journey” blog, but I don’t know how comfortably it will fit. Covid-19 is part of all our journeys today, and I feel that I need to write about what I see, in others and in myself. I still don’t know what I’m going to write. I’ll just start, and see where I go.

I’ve been affected personally by the pandemic. Not as hard as many millions, but I’ve lost a friend of over 20 years who made me smile countless times. I don’t know if it’s that, or the loneliness of lockdown, but I’ve started getting quite upset, and angry, about some of the things I’m reading.

There’s the ridiculous conspiracy theories. As if this situation was deliberately engineered, or at least manipulated to subjugate or decimate the population. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a huge number of bad decisions made in my own and other countries. Some people may have even made cynical attempts to gain from human misery. But whatever the genesis of this strain of coronavirus, its spread from the beginning has been the result of natural behaviours, viral and human. There is no evidence to the contrary, just theories concocted to satisfy particular world views. When I read the imaginations of conspiracists I don’t know how to feel. There’s anger that they and those who believe them are diverting precious time and energy from more helpful pursuits. There’s sadness that some hurting people will be fooled into believing fairy tales at a time when their emotions are most fragile and malleable. And there’s frustration that no amount of reasoned argument can change their mind, because if I don’t accept their narrative I’m either part of the problem or one of the gullible masses.

There’s the claims that the virus isn’t as contagious or as deadly as we’re told, and that the restrictions to our civil liberties are out of proportion to the threat. I’ve heard people suggest that the fact that the NHS hasn’t been completely overwhelmed shows that the UK government overreacted. I work in IT, and I have done for nearly 25 years, which means I was there at the heart of the Y2K panic. When we didn’t suffer blackouts and ATM failures and planes falling out of sky there was a large number of the population that ridiculed the effort and expense of fixing the “millennium bug.” I can tell you that there was a huge amount of code that had been written without any expectation of still running in the year 2000, or what the consequences might be. If the remedial work hadn’t taken place then it probably wouldn’t have caused an apocalypse but many companies and authorities would have suffered massive system failures and this would have led to all kinds of stresses for members of the public. Similarly, without social distancing and other precautions the already dreadful number of Covid-19 fatalities would definitely have been many times higher. Here’s an interesting article explaining how this can be demonstrated in responses to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

There’s the small number of religious leaders who don’t understand that God is omnipresent, who don’t understand that a church building is just a building, not the church, and who hold on to either a paranoid idea that government is trying to destroy religion by treating them the same as other groups, or a messianic belief that their congregations will be lost to the darkness if kept away from their physical presence for too long. I’m grateful to be part of a faith community that understands and works with the realities of this world while seeking practical ways to improve that reality for those who are truly oppressed.

And of course there are the political leaders who have failed to lead effectively. As I said to my friends on Facebook, I don’t expect perfection from members of the government any more than I would from any other human being. But I do expect a few things. I expect them to forego secrecy and spin in the face of a national and global crisis. I expect them to learn from their mistakes and from the successes of leaders elsewhere – not when this is all over, but now, while learning from mistakes could save lives. I told my friends there were three qualities I was looking for in our leaders: honesty, humility and compassion. Sadly in many countries, including my own, it’s hard to find leaders with all three of those qualities.

I don’t like the way the pandemic has highlighted the flaws in my own character. I’ve always known I have some hypocritical tendencies. I will look out of my window and make judgemental assessments of people walking or driving past, while trying so hard to control my own urge to go out for frivolous journeys and visits.

I like to think of myself as witty. It’s probably closer to the truth to say I have quite a dry, dark and bitter sense of humour. Part of me feels that this is the time for such humour to shine, but in fact as the death toll has risen things have got ever more serious, and I know that many of my humorous remarks would be inappropriate and hurtful, so I’m learning to rein them in.

And of course the situation we’re in is nurturing my negative emotions. There’s the anger and frustration I’ve already described. There are times of deep loneliness, sadness, bitterness and jealousy. My days have their bright moments as well, to be sure, but I feel that as lockdown continues the dark feelings get stronger.

What can I do? Trust God, of course, because through all our trials He is faithful. Remember that this will pass, and that those of us who survive will be stronger for what we’ve learned through it. And if all else fails, I’ll probably indulge in some chocolate. 🙂

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 (ESVUK)

Responding to the Pandemic

I’ve been wanting to say something here about Novel Coronavirus / Covid-19 / SARS-CoV-2 for a few weeks, but I struggled to find the right approach, and the right words. Fortunately Frank Viola today wrote a post that came very close to what I would have chosen, so I can direct you to his words:

It’s Not the Time to Binge on Netflix

He does a little self-promotion in his post, but that’s ok because the material he produces is generally excellent. I found the Martin Luther quote at the end of the post stunning.

All I will add to this is that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This situation feels extraordinary to us because it is extraordinary to us, but similar events have happened throughout human history, and human beings have no doubt responded in all the same ways we are doing now.

I don’t want to discount the real pain and suffering of all kinds that the current situation is inflicting on people everywhere. The phrase “mourn with those who mourn” came to mind. Here is the passage that contains those words. This is for all times:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 12:9-19

A Prayer For Help

Why are you far away, Lord? Why do you hide yourself when I am in trouble? Proud and brutal people hunt down the poor. But let them get caught by their own evil plans!

The wicked brag about their deepest desires. Those greedy people hate and curse you, Lord. The wicked are too proud to turn to you or even think about you. They are always successful, though they can’t understand your teachings, and they keep sneering at their enemies.

In their hearts they say, “Nothing can hurt us! We’ll always be happy and free from trouble.” They curse and tell lies, and all they talk about is how to be cruel or how to do wrong. They hide outside villages, waiting to strike and murder some innocent victim.

They are hungry lions hiding in the bushes, hoping to catch some helpless passerby. They trap the poor in nets and drag them away. They crouch down and wait to grab a victim. They say, “God can’t see! He’s got on a blindfold.”

Do something, Lord God, and use your powerful arm to help those in need. The wicked don’t respect you. In their hearts they say, “God won’t punish us!” But you see the trouble and the distress, and you will do something. The poor can count on you, and so can orphans. Now break the arms of all merciless people. Punish them for doing wrong and make them stop.

Our Lord, you will always rule, but nations will vanish from the earth. You listen to the longings of those who suffer. You offer them hope, and you pay attention to their cries for help. You defend orphans and everyone else in need, so that no one on earth can terrify others again.

Psalm 10, Contemporary English Version

I’m not sure what led me to this psalm last week, but when I read it I was immediately reminded of many powerful people in today’s world that seem to fit the description of the “wicked” given here. And I recognised the frustration of the psalmist, wondering how and why God allows these people to apparently thrive.

But their “victory” is temporary, while God’s is eternal. Their “freedom” is an illusion, while freedom in Christ is deep and real.

We can cry out to God, and pray for justice. And we can do our part, large or small, in bringing it about. But no matter how dark the world becomes we can never lose hope, because the Light of the World has already overcome the darkness.

John 1:5, John 3:19-21, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:6-20

Leaving Auschwitz

I’ve heard people say that you can’t grasp the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz until you have been there.

I visited today and I can confirm that what people say is true. In fact I don’t think I can comprehend it even now, after a three hour guided tour. It may be further beyond me now than it was yesterday.

The word ‘extermination’ was used frequently. I don’t like the word because in a way it seems to legitimise the Nazi view of Jews and others as a sub-human pest to be eradicated. ‘Death’ was also common – death walk, death barrack, and so on. But death sounds clean and natural, and there was nothing clean or natural about the death camps.

The only word that seems right to me at this moment is murder. And what I witnessed today was the gruesome evidence of the industrialisation of murder. And that inevitably leads us to ask many questions of why?

I’ve tried, in my less than adequate way, to answer the question of evil in previous posts, for example Is That All There Is. I can’t add anything new to that debate, I just want to briefly reflect on what the knowledge and experience of evil does to us.

I don’t think it leaves anyone unmoved. It either draws you closer to God, or further away. For me, the critical moment was when I entered the ‘Hair Room’. I felt my heart break, weighed down by sorrow and compassion for those poor (mostly) women. And as I was drawn closer to them and their memory, I also found myself drawn closer to God, who created them, and who loved each one of them more than I can imagine.

I think there’s something very profound connecting the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and the suffering of Christ on the Cross. They are not the same thing, and I don’t have words to describe the connection I feel. I just know that there is a deep, deep significance in what I saw today, that somehow magnifies the life of every one of the murdered millions, and also magnifies the love of Christ for each one of them, and for each one of us.

Are Natural Disasters God’s Punishment For Sin?

It’s good to be challenged now and then. I don’t ever want to get complacent in my faith or imagine that I have everything worked out. So here’s an example of a blog post I find uncomfortable to read.

https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Are-natural-disasters-God-s-punishment-for-sin

The post challenges two aspects of my thinking about God and man.

The first is right there in the title. Natural disasters are very difficult to explain in terms of God’s purpose for the world, and can seem to be a powerful weapon in an atheist’s arsenal. How can a good God allow such things?

My response is not entirely satisfying but it is usually enough for me. It has two parts. One, that the movements of the atmosphere and of the earth are indeed natural and necessary as part of the continual renewing of the environment – think of forest fires that clear the ground for new growth to begin. And you don’t have to take Genesis literally to see a message in there that God intended us to live in the “safe” areas of the world. I don’t believe the Garden was positioned on the side of a volcano or in a tornado alley.

That leads to the second part of my response, that human beings have been drawn to areas which are more prone to various disasters, for various reasons such as more fertile ground, or more plentiful or valuable resources. So there’s a sense in which our greed or laziness have led us to populate some naturally more dangerous parts of the world.

As I said, that’s not an entirely satisfying explanation, and I wouldn’t pretend that it’s watertight, but it’s enough to convince me that we don’t have to blame God when nature seems to turn against us.

The other uncomfortable notion in the post is that of our “underlying evil nature,” which I take to be an alternative description of “total depravity” – quite a widely accepted theological doctrine.

This is supported in the post by scripture, the words of Jesus, no less. I return to Genesis and recall that we are made in the image of God. I want to believe that we are fundamentally good, but could I be deluding myself because I don’t want to accept a reality that is quite the opposite? Just when I think I’ve resolved the problem of evil, it comes back to bite me!

I am writing this at the end of 2019. And it reveals a simple message for myself and for you as we enter a new year.

Keep thinking, and keep trusting God.

When Communication Breaks Down

A recent incident upset me considerably. I’ll describe it later, but first I want to talk about some of the thoughts that came to me as I analysed what had happened. I still find it hard to understand how two people with good intentions can become so incensed by a conversation that they agree not to speak to each other again, but it happened. And neither of those people did anything wrong. What happened was all about misunderstanding and miscommunication. I’ve seen the issues before, in my life, in church, and in society. There are many ways that communication can break down. Here are three that I see most often. I know I’ve discussed them with friends before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve written about them too, in other contexts.

Simple v Complicated

I’ve been frustrated so many times when I see people consider a simple thing as complicated, or a very complicated thing as simple. I do it myself, especially the first of those, as I have a strong tendency to overthink. It becomes a problem when a “simplifier” and a “complicator” can’t see the validity of each other’s perspective.

There are a couple of Biblical examples to illustrate the point. Actually you could probably use just about any scriptural extract for this purpose, but these are my go-to examples.

First, Genesis, and specifically creation. The simple view is that God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, in six twenty-four hour days, and we know this because the Bible – the Word of God – tells us so. A more complicated interpretation is that this is a poetic representation of creation, written to explain our place in the universe, and the thought and design that went into it. The complicated view says that we can use scientific tools and methods to explore the physical nature of the universe and its origin, but that scripture tells us the meaning behind it, and its spiritual nature.

I subscribe to the “complicated” view. I don’t believe God has allowed us to be so fooled by false evidence or assumptions that everything science has explained so far is wrong. On the other hand, I accept that none of us were here at the point of creation, and there can always be room for doubt, so I wouldn’t mock anyone for having a “simple” literal view, but I would expect them to respect my opinion, and appreciate our common ground – our understanding that “In the beginning, God…”

Second, there is the whole notion of “Christian living.” Here, the complicated view is what you hear in churches across the world for 20-60 minutes every week. It’s what you read in the thousands of Christian books published every year, of which I’ve bought plenty. It’s everywhere, all the time, explaining how we should respond to the difficult moments in our lives, or the beautiful moments, or the big issues in a changing world. It’s what I’ve written about in most, if not all, of my blog posts.

The simple view is Matthew 22:37-40 – Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I haven’t always done so, but I now subscribe to the “simple” view. Why should I tie myself in knots wondering what God thinks of every decision I make, or whether I’m saved, or what happens after I die, or why there is evil? The best I can do, in fact all I can really do, is to try to love God and people. That’s hard enough sometimes! And I fail often, but I’ll keep trying, because in my heart I know it’s right. The other questions interest me, obviously, or I wouldn’t keep writing about them, but if I devote too much time to studying them in hope of finding a complete answer, I’ll be losing the opportunity to live the abundant life Jesus promised me. Some people find the very meaning of their lives in studying the hard questions, and that’s fine, but sometimes apparently “thoughtful” interpretations of the Bible lead to “simplistic” and dangerous outcomes where I have to question just what some people think it means to love your neighbour. That’s a topic for several other posts.

You don’t need a faith to struggle with simple v complicated. In the political world it happens all the time, particularly when complex interconnected socio-economic issues are reduced into politically convenient soundbites. In community life I feel that the opposite is more common, as we make simplistic judgements and assumptions about people without regard to the complicated difficulties they may be facing behind closed doors.

God (and the devil) v Humanity

Is the heading too controversial? I don’t think so, because I think many people have peculiar and irrational ideas about the balance of natural and supernatural input to our lives.

On the one hand, I’m bound to say that an atheist, or really anyone who lives as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, is storing up trouble for themselves. I don’t want to fall into a simple/complicated trap and suggest that I or anyone can be sure of the consequences. I just believe that God is real, and does care, and so I think it’s wise to live with that in mind. But people can go too far the other way.

I’ve said many times in this blog that God is not a puppet-master. We are free agents who can make any choice we wish – including the choice to submit ourselves completely and become “slaves of Christ.” I do believe that God will sometimes open doors – but we choose whether to walk through them. He sometimes stirs our spirits in a particular direction, but we choose whether to acknowledge those stirrings or to go our own way. I’ve no doubt that occasionally God will make a direct intervention, and put someone in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose. But His plan for His creation doesn’t depend on any one of us, nor does He hand us each the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and expect us to put the pieces together. I’ve seen people waste years of their lives waiting for God to speak or act, or trying to work out what God’s purpose is for them. If only He would whisper in their ears, “Matthew 22:37-40. Now get on with it!”

Equally, I’ve heard too many people blame the devil for every bad thing that happens to them. Ironically this belief actually does the devil’s job for him, because it is a lie that plants seeds of doubt and fear, suggesting he is more powerful than he actually is. I believe that the vast majority of bad breaks come down to bad decisions by human beings, whether it’s ourselves, those around us, or those that govern us. Blaming the devil gets human beings off the hook and stops us trying to make better decisions.

Trust v Suspicion

People make bad decisions, but I believe we are all made in the image of God, and fundamentally that means we are good rather than evil. We have self-interest, certainly, but we also have compassion for others, and rarely act or speak with bad intentions. We may be misguided. We may be emotional. We may be mistaken. Any of these or other reasons could lead us to make those bad decisions and treat people wrongly.

Circumstances are important. Someone may be completely honourable in their personal life, but in their profession their self-interest becomes an overriding factor and leads them to act deceptively.

But in general, unless circumstances or experience says different, I would choose to trust people. I’ve heard church leaders say the opposite, and that is very worrying.

When Communication Broke Down

As I usually try to do, I’ll keep this very vague. The details aren’t important, the process is. So the second person in the story is unidentifiable, although if they read this post they’ll recognise themselves immediately. The first person is me.

I met a friend and had a long and rewarding conversation. A couple of days later they wrote something online, and because of the timing of the statement it seemed feasible that it could be referring to me. I honestly thought it was unlikely, and an embarrassing topic to bring up, but at the same time, if it was about me it would have been wrong, and possibly cruel, to ignore.

So, as gently as I could, I asked. And unsurprisingly I was wrong. I thought that was the end of the matter, but the subsequent text exchange proved it was just the beginning.

After a few more days they asked why I’d thought what I did? I said it was the curious timing and circumstances, and I was sorry for jumping to conclusions. This wasn’t enough, it made no sense to them, they needed to know why. So I tried to unpick and describe step by step what my thought process had been, acknowledging again when those thoughts had been wrong.

This didn’t satisfy my friend either. Other friends haven’t had the same thought, so why had I? What was going on?

Eventually I couldn’t see any good way out of the situation. None of my reassurances were being accepted. First my friend was turning a simple mistake into something far more complicated. And then they took the approach of treating me with suspicion instead of trust. I said we should call it a day and they agreed.

Well I thought that really was the end, but there was a sting in the tail. After a few days my old friend wrote something else online, referencing the different ways the devil was attacking them. It was clear that not everything was about me, but I was in there somewhere. It appeared that they had many issues that I would have liked to help with but I’m not the right person, so I hope and pray that they get what they need.

It’s no great revelation to see that when communication breaks down, so do relationships. It’s also clear to see that they can only be mended when both parties want it to happen and can get themselves on the same wavelength. And it’s just a sad fact of life that this can’t always be the case.