Darkness and Light

Yesterday was my birthday. Every four years I receive an early birthday present in the form of the inauguration of a president of the USA. Sometimes this is an encouraging present, sometimes – like this year – not so much.

I pray for President Trump. I pray for peace in his heart that will translate into a peacemaking approach to his policies at home and abroad. What I write now is based on the evidence of his words and actions up to now.

As I listened to Trump’s inauguration speech I was disturbed by what I heard. There were a handful of sentences that sounded like nod towards an inclusive society, but mostly it was a continuation of his consistent attitude over the last year, and apparently over his whole lifetime.

This was the point where his speech turned from objectionable to painful:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

This is the same attitude we see gaining traction all over the world these days – isolationism, protectionism and nationalism based on ignorance and fear. A nation is a collection of people who have been born or raised in an arbitrary area of land, and no such collection of people is any better or worse than another. Throughout history the wealth of nations has increased through cooperation and friendship, and the poor have been raised up through the generosity and compassion of the rich. These are the mechanisms by which societies advance and they are driven by the engine of love. When people turn their backs on their neighbours, either at home or abroad, everybody loses.

I want God to bless America. And I want Him to bless the United Kingdom. But I also want Him to bless Russia, and China and North Korea, and every other nation on Earth. And this is not a fantasy. The receipt of God’s blessings is not a zero-sum game.

We are the light of the world, we are the salt of the earth. Let us continue to shine the light of truth and love on all of our neighbours in every corner of the world. No matter how dark the world may become, the darkness will never overcome the light.

Calling It In Its Face

If you have a minute to spare, you could do worse than to spend it reading this short post by one of my favourite Christian writers, Frank Viola.

http://frankviola.org/2016/12/08/face/

As I was reading it again today I was struck by the personal example I encountered yesterday.

I’m a fairly swift walker, and I was walking, fairly swiftly, across a crowded bridge in the early evening. I was listening to a podcast through headphones but I was well aware, as I usually am, of what was going on around me.

I was approaching an elderly lady who was walking in the same direction, but was naturally slower, and there wasn’t much of a gap through which to pass. She moved slightly to the right and the gap opened. I started heading for it and she moved slightly to the left so I held back just behind her.

I wasn’t in a hurry, so there was no need to ask her to “excuse me” or to find an alternative route. I decided to slow down and follow at her pace.

A moment later I heard someone calling “watch out!” and two younger ladies grabbed the older one and pulled her to the side. I heard them warning her about the selfish oaf who was about to run over her, and I felt the tension rise inside me.

Years ago I would have stopped, removed my headphones, turned to those “helpful” ladies and angrily explained their mistake. It would have been intimidating to them, and they would most likely have assumed that they were in fact right about me and that I was only trying to justify my bad behaviour by bending the truth to suit myself.

Instead I walked on. Yes, they undoubtedly thought they’d done a good deed, and that the man walking ahead was ignorant and rude. And yes, it frustrated me hugely that I’d been so misrepresented. I would have loved to set the record straight but the anger was there and no matter how fair and well judged my words might have been, my voice would have told a different story and the situation would have escalated unnecessarily.

So I’m pleased that I didn’t react to defend myself, that while I was angry I did not sin. I hope and pray that as I let the Holy Spirit continue to work in me the day will come when anger doesn’t start bubbling up on such occasions.

But at the same time, this brief incident is a reminder to all of us that things are not always as they seem, that we can easily misinterpret others’ intentions, and that doing so can bring unintended hurt to innocent parties.

Those young ladies thought they were doing the right thing, and I’m pleased that they acted on the impulse to help their neighbour. But I’m much more pleased that the One who will ultimately judge me doesn’t look at outward appearances, but looks at my heart.

A Short Note About Goodness

As I walked down Chester Road towards the railway station this afternoon I heard the distinctive siren of an ambulance approaching from behind.

The road was quite busy, and one by one cars slowed down and moved to the side of the road, or even onto the pavement, to allow the ambulance easier progress.

All except one car, whose driver continued in an unchanging line, either ignorant or indifferent to what was happening around him.

Of course I wasn’t surprised. It’s a sad truth of human nature. And I’m not just talking about that driver, I’m talking about myself, and I’m probably talking about you.

Because here’s the sad truth. It’s not that I noticed that one selfish driver more than the dozen decent individuals. It’s not even that I expected someone to act that way. The sad truth is that I was looking for them.

This is how many of us are brought up. It’s how we are conditioned by the media and our society. And yes, it may well be built into our very nature. We find ourselves always looking for the bad and pointing it out, while we are seemingly blind to the good that surrounds us constantly.

Whether it’s that driver who cuts you up, the neighbour who causes a noise nuisance in the dead of night, the politician caught in scandal or the corrupt businessman. These are all exceptions. It’s not true to say “they’re all the same,” it’s truer to acknowledge that we notice their differences, and to understand that the news will report the abnormal rather than the everyday.

God is good, and He made us in His image. That image has become distorted but the goodness is still there, and we would do well to recognise that, and thank Him for the goodness in the world, in ourselves and in each other.

Teach Me

I’m thankful to Pastor Samuel Cole and Pastor Dena Cole for bringing this wisdom to the front of my mind, where it belongs. Before anything else, I want to pay tribute to my dear friend. Pastor Sam, we haven’t seen each other for some time now, but you remain close to my heart and regularly in my prayers. When I was starting on my journey of faith, you gave me the most powerful encouragement, and you showed me what it means to be salt and light in a world so bereft of both. You have continued to inspire me through the years. I don’t think there’s another human being who has done more to strengthen my confidence in the goodness of God in all circumstances. I’ve learned so much from you, and I love you. Thank you, my brother.

Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name. (Psalm 86:11)

Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness. (Psalm 143:10)

Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. (Psalm 27:11)

Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. (Psalm 119:33)

I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. (Psalm 32:8)

Too many people speak and act as if they know it all. It’s a common human failing but it bothers me more when I see it in Christians. And I see plenty of it, sometimes in person, and very often online.

Why does it bother me more? Because we of all people, who recognise the almighty power and knowledge of our Creator, should also recognise how small we are in comparison, how blinkered in our vision, how narrow in our knowledge.

And yet, when we should be demonstrating humility, instead we display hubris.

There was not one perfect man or woman until the birth of Christ, and there has been none since. If we really knew the whole truth we would be unable to sin – the knowledge of the consequences would make it impossible.

In fact, even as we recite “lean not on your own understanding” we are busy constructing our own personal moralities, interpreting scripture in our own image, and condemning others who do the same.

How many times has the church, the body of Christ, fractured into new sects and denominations? Occasionally this might be due to a difference of style, but more often it is about substance, about doctrine. When the splits number in the thousands, and still brothers and sisters sitting side by side in services can’t agree on one hundred per cent of Biblical interpretation, how can any one of us honestly believe they are the one who has finally understood God’s message clearly. Even Paul acknowledged the limits of our mortal understanding:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There is a beautiful phrase, apparently not coined by St Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” If only we could all live by it, and in particular by the third clause, because in truth we can find it hard even to agree on what is essential. Our social, cultural and political biases will determine what matters most to us, and hence we define our essentials, and then comes judgement towards those whose definitions vary.

We need to return to the psalms. We need to ask our Lord to teach us His ways and His will. And we need to keep asking, always ready to repent when we learn that our previous understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.

And we need to be charitable towards those with whom we disagree. Be respectful and kind. There’s no place for arrogance or presumption in the family of God. We are all still learning.

Happy Birthday U2

I have a lot of time for Bono and I enjoy U2’s music, so I thought I’d say a few words to celebrate 40 years since their formation on 25 September 1976.

My first experience of the band was superficial, it was the early ’80s and while I was more in tune with the New Romantic movement, I became aware of this rock group producing pleasingly anthemic tunes accompanied by apparently meaningful lyrics. They remained in the background of the soundtrack of my life, occasionally bursting to the fore, for example with The Joshua Tree. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the spiritual message flowing through that album, but, oh my word, it was a great collection of songs.

As I look back at their career, I’m most impressed with the way they’ve managed to navigate the fine line between sacred and secular music, so that they can deliver the message of God’s love to millions of rock fans around the world who would otherwise never choose to listen to Christian music. Even the subtle message found in many of their songs can make an impact on the listener, who, if they choose to investigate further, will find a frontman in Bono who isn’t afraid to proclaim the gospel and his trust in Christ.

Sometimes the songs are explicit in their declaration of faith, while also acknowledging our brokenness and our need for salvation, like the two songs in this video.

 

You’ll find plenty of articles about U2 and their faith with a quick web search. Here’s one from Premier Christianity that was written in anticipation of their “birthday” and which traces how spiritual themes have been woven into their music over the years, far more eloquently than I could manage. For example,

When they reached number one in the US charts on 8th August 1987 with ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, radio stations across the world were ablaze with as succinct a theology of Christ’s cross as any hymn ever written: “You broke the bonds / And you loosed the chains / Carried the cross / Of my shame / You know I believe it.”

Remarkably, Christians missed the theological clout and actually wondered if the band members had lost their faith, distracted by the title. Philippians 3:12 is perhaps the biblical equivalent of what U2 were trying to say: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

Please check out the links at the bottom of the Premier Christianity article for more evidence of a faithful and inspiring band.

High Priority

“I’d like you to write down the three most important people in your life, in order.”

It was a deliberatively provocative way to start our latest small group meeting. I’d put my friends slightly off-track by announcing beforehand that the topic of the evening was ‘family’. I pushed them further in a particular direction by ‘admitting’ that I couldn’t choose between my two children, so I would allow them to group people together in the list.

I got what I deserved. The next few minutes were filled with discussions about how impossible (or at least painful) it was to rank people in such a way, and how to define ‘important’, but in the end it seemed that everyone had a list along the lines of “spouse, children, grandchildren” or something similar depending on age and marital status. There was no point asking the next two questions…

“How many of you put Jesus/God in your top three?”

“How many of you put Him at number one?”

Of course, if my preamble had been “This is a discussion about prioritising between God and family,” I would have expected them all to put God at number one, because that’s simply what you do – isn’t it?

In fact, when I had given myself this mental exercise a few days earlier it was outside of that context. Without much thought (but not entirely thoughtlessly), I had come up with the list “close family, best friend, Jesus”.

Jesus at number three?

I realised that there is often a conflict between the priorities I’d like to have and the priorities I demonstrate in my life, so I decided to talk about it in the group meeting, and I did some research on the Internet, because that’s simply what you do!

I read someone’s description of a sermon they once heard:

The pastor started the message by asking the congregation, “Why do you feel the need to skip church when you have family in town?” Everyone was cracking up because for anyone who grew up in the church, they knew that there was a grain of truth to what he was saying. The pastor went on to explain how churchgoers who attend regularly don’t see the big deal with skipping one Sunday to entertain family. He then compared this situation to Samson and Delilah and how Samson didn’t see the harm in just spending a little time with Delilah.

Is this is a fair comparison? I read the story in Judges 16, but I didn’t see the connection. There wasn’t the ‘skipping one Sunday’ thought in Samson’s mind, just a general lapse of wisdom. It made me wonder if that was the best example he could find to illustrate his point.

The pastor talked about how tithing can and does take a nosedive when our family needs money. He likened this to a lack of faith in God and an over reliance on your own financial means. The scripture he used to support this point was found in I Kings 17:10-16.

This is when Elijah asked a widow woman for a meal. She responded by saying that I’d like to but I am on my last meal and once I make it for my son and I, we are going to die. But God, speaking through Elijah said make a meal for me first and then make a meal for you and your son. Once she did this, she was rewarded with food for many days.

Do we have enough faith to put our family’s finances second and our giving to God first? This can be a real challenge. I tend to think that when it comes to money the most important thing is not to treasure it in your heart. If family, friend, or stranger has a need and you choose to help, surely God will be pleased, even if it means less is given in His house.

But if you consider the ramifications of putting God before family, we can’t get a more direct example than Genesis 22. Here is an abridged version, verses 1-2, followed by 9-12:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’

God tested Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his only son in obedience to the Lord. And then later God Himself sacrificed His only Son for our atonement. How far would we go, in giving up our family for God? Can you think of a sacrifice you have made – a decision made in obedience to God that hurt a member of their family?

It’s all very well having conversations about such matters between Christian friends, but sometimes it can be instructive to look at the question from a different angle. These are the words of somebody who wrote to Yahoo Answers. If somebody asked you this, how would you respond?

Something I’ve noticed lately from many Christians, & other adherents to Abrahamic faiths is that when asked what is most important in their life, they always say God, family, & something else. The reason I ask this is because usually they put God BEFORE their own family. I don’t mean to be rude, but I find that absolutely [expletive] crazy! No matter how religious of a person one may be, how can you possibly put God before your own family? I find that very disturbing, & believe that people like this are seriously sick in the head. I myself used to be Catholic but even during my time as a religious person, God came 2nd, my family came 1st. Does anybody else find it chilling that there are religious followers out there (many) who put family AFTER God? If their are people here like that, can you possibly explain this to me? If so, why is God before your very own family?

Several answers agreed with the sentiment of the original question, but here’s a different perspective.

L Williams, who founded a big insurance company to work on behalf of the consumer, said God first you second and everyone else third. It just seems to work, if you say, put your lover first, and they walk out the door, without your foundation laid right, your world crumbles. It is not so much about what I may feel is right and wrong, but what works and what doesn’t work.

So let’s read some of what Jesus said about family. Luke 14:25-27

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

On which Matthew Henry’s commentary says this:

Every good man loves his relations; and yet, if he be a disciple of Christ, he must comparatively hate them, must love them less than Christ, as Leah is said to be hated when Rachel was better loved. Not that their persons must be in any degree hated, but our comfort and satisfaction in them must be lost and swallowed up in our love to Christ, as Levi’s was, when he said to his father, I have not seen him, Deuteronomy 33:9. When our duty to our parents comes in competition with our evident duty to Christ, we must give Christ the preference. If we must either deny Christ or be banished from our families and relations (as many of the primitive Christians were), we must rather lose their society than his favour.

He said of his father and mother,
“I have no regard for them.”
He did not recognise his brothers
or acknowledge his own children,
but he watched over your word
and guarded your covenant.

Compare this to Matthew 15:1-6

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’

Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is “devoted to God,” they are not to “honour their father or mother” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

And here is what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:8

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

I’ll conclude with another of the Yahoo Answers:

Putting God before the family does not diminish the love of family. Actually one would say that the love of family and statement of your love of God are one in the same, for who teaches us of Love. The family seems to come first for many, but without the understanding of the Great Love of God how could one have the full concept of loving, devotion to the family.

References and further reading:

https://thesuperspade.wordpress.com/2006/03/15/is-your-family-more-important-than-god/

https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110304004555AAgyZi1

http://www.gotquestions.org/putting-God-first.html

http://focusongod.com/Family-01.htm

http://www.blogos.org/christianlifeandgrowth/God-before-family.php