To Do or Not To Do?

Faith and Works

A recurrent, and all to easy, temptation when doing theology is to unhook describing the life from living the life, as though theology were a science.  This is one reason I prefer Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology. Biblical Theology tends to take the passages in their immediate context, applying them to the purpose for which and to which/whom they were penned, whereas Systematic Theology attempts to make a coherent system of disparate parts. This has merit naturally, but Systematic Theology is always going to fall foul of the need for a forced consistency and logic.  And I’m afraid the Middle Eastern mind wasn’t the product of the Enlightenment (nor its Protestant sibling, the Reformation). 

The Apostle John (in 1 John) does something that is almost the opposite of what any discussion about faith and works tends to do. But before we get to his point it may pay to step back momentarily and look at the issue from a historical perspective. 

We theologically separate faith and works, as though they can be separated- which I contend is difficult, if not impossible. Luther maintained that James was an epistle of straw because James stated faith is only seen in works – they come from faith, in the same way the light comes from the sun. It is hard to separate one from the other for all practical purposes.  James is saying you can’t separate the two and hope to still speak of a saving faith.  Faith is not an inert or intellectual property.  It is a living dynamic that bears witness of itself. 

The coin has two faces.  We are justified (declared in the right/made right) before God, and we are to live holy (practice the right) before God and man.

What I find interesting about John in this, his first, letter is that he makes the case for living morally (in the light) as proof of faith/belonging to Jesus, before he speaks of believing the right things about the self-same Lord and Christ. 

In the Protestant/Reformed world this appears topsy-turvy, as we are trained to think the exact opposite. But maybe John was facing a disconnection in his day between confession and action?  And can there be confession without corresponding and attesting action?

In 1 John 1 the great apostle is presenting the case for a living connection with the person of Jesus.  Because he, John, had fellowship with Jesus, his readers could too.  This fellowship is a living relationship, a living dynamic, that is transferable, by fellowship and proclamation.  John saw, felt, was touched by, and touched the “word of life.”  This is the core of his, our, faith, not a forensic proposition.  It may, and does, include the latter but our faith is hardly birthed by truths/concepts/positions.  Lawyers may wish it so, not John. 

Out if this fellowship, this communion, this connection, comes identification with the God of light.  When John speaks of walking in the light he is clearly referring to the moral dynamics of a holy life.  The light isn’t an esoteric description of an unapproachable and ineffable God.  It is a way of living that reflects, or refracts, God’s nature – found in Jesus.  (Jesus is Gods statement of truth.  “I am the… the truth.”)  A person embodies who God is in their life, their actions and their body, as well as in their thoughts and beliefs.

John goes, as far as to say that you can’t claim any vital union with God if you are still acting like the devil.  We lie when we claim fellowship with God whilst walking in the darkness.  Clearly John is saying it is no good talking unless you are acting. We can’t claim something that has no proof. 

The apostle is identifying who is in Christ, and he begins with the markers of lifestyle/morality. 

In the second chapter we see that “knowing” God isn’t a formal commitment to a series of truths/propositions.  It is seen in keeping the commandments of Jesus.  The “truth in us” is not a legal status we can claim to rely on.  It is the clear acknowledgement of a life that does the word of God.   We know we know because, “we keep his commandments.”  John is basing his knowledge of being in Christ upon a life that acts as though it is “being” in Christ.

Keener sums this up by saying, “John advocates testing the spirits by two main tests: a moral ethical test (keeping thecommandments, especially love of the Christian community) and a faith test (the right view of Jesus).” 

Action precedes confession, in the sense of proof of faith, in this letter of John. 

Exception: The New Law

A nation, any nation, whose constitution, laws and judiciary fails to recognize, and take into account, the inherent self-orientation of human nature will miserably and fail its people. The hope of human perfectibility is a forlorn hope and a dangerous expectation. 

Any law that alleviates, or allows, for a minority of cases to dominate the social landscape, albeit with whatever good intentions, will very quickly be latched onto by the majority with selfish agendas. 

When exception at law becomes normal then the norm becomes the exception.  When exception becomes the law, everyone’s exception is the law.  It is at this point exception has taken on the status of law. 

In regards the introduction of no fault divorce this is an unmitigated disaster.  The exception, which should always be available to the law and those that uphold and adjudicate it because of genuine and exceptional cases, is now reason for a tide of selfishness and a failure of moral conviction.  This cuts at the heart of our communities, precipitating suffering in our children, sanity, and health. 

Divorce has indeed exploded. 

The same is likely if we legalize illicit drugs.  What appears compassionate legislation will fuel a maelstrom of drug taking, followed by a host of attendant ills.  When something is easier to obtain it becomes harder to resist.  An exponential rise in drug taking will cause the same to costs in our health system - like, we need that?

Trying to help the few with laws that will assist in destroying the many is hardly compassionate.  On the contrary, it is shortsighted, and utterly blind to the inclinations and perversity of human nature. 

The immensity of harm that divorce has wrecked upon our communities should be sign enough that a sentimental, even if well meaning, view of humanity is the greatest cruelty. 

law.jpg

Justice - Never So Blind

Justice is never so blind as when we want her to see.  We are removing the blindfold on madam to ensure that she judges with each of us, each one of us, me, in her sight, firmly in mind. 

In so doing we are redefining justice in favour of the individual, in favour of his or her wants, needs and preferences – and no longer, so much, for the welfare and preservation of the community, which of course was always ultimately designed to benefit each of us.   

Us means proscribed, considered acceptable, and to be judged, behaviours that don’t, as they can’t always, take into account the individual. 

Law does exist for my benefit, but it is a benefit in community and not just a benefit I prefer, or believe I am due, worthy of, or entitled to.

Whist I don’t exist for the law my existence in community is not viable without law.

Were lady justice to have to look at everyone, she would fail in her function as impartial judge, and in so doing became crippled.  Better blind and sure footed, than all seeing and crippled. 

Sometimes we have to look away from the ones for the sake of the community.  Being blind, in this instance, has its advantages. 

If every person who chooses to break the law were shown the absolute leniency, they protest that their rights demand, so help the nation they strut the streets of.  Where there is no justice or law for the many we breed injustice by the few.

Whilst we may laugh at the farfetched extrapolation of the above idea, and are a long way from it, we are closely than we were. 

The natural toxicity of ‘my rights’ will poison the well of shared water.  It already does. 

And were every contingency taken into account no imposition of justice would be possible.  (Murder isn’t less murder at the hand of a clinically depressed person – a life has been taken.) 

Of course mercy is a wonderful quality, but it should not be shown to the one who premeditates, the recalcitrant or the belligerent.  Then it would not be efficacious mercy but naïve sentimentality.

Leave the blindfold on.  It has a purpose beyond the comfort of the few. 

Impartiality benefits most of us, whilst it aggravates, even resists, a few. 

Are You Positive?

Being positive is not so bad.  It has value, and it is certainly better than its dour opposite.  Trust me.  But it is also far from the panacea it is purported to be. 

It doesn’t raise anyone from the dead, heal a broken soul, deal with the contagion of evil, nor satisfy our deepest needs.  There is no heavy lifting, just tinkering at the edges.

And, more to the point, it is a word barely if ever used in scripture.  Does this make being positive of no value?  Far from it.  And is it not better to have a positive outlook rather than a negative one?  Certainly. 

Scripture doesn’t deny the idea of maintaining a positive outlook, but it uses much more specific language, stronger and richer words, with much more significant outcomes. 

Hope, for instance.  Hope is a confident future orientation.  It is ultimately, utterly and totally positive.  But it is in a specific end, a prophetic future of the rule and reign of Jesus Christ, of his summing up all things in heaven and earth. Hope is not a word that can be easily, and therefore cheaply, attached to a list of personal preference/s and ideals - things I might want. 

Hope was what kept people looking to the promises of God when nothing around them gave them hope.  With their circumstances hopeless, and they helpless, hope of God’s bright future beckoned and sustained people in the worst of circumstances.  It still does.

It a hard to be ‘positive’ when someone you love dies.  To be full of hope?  Yes and amen.  To be positive (in the sense it is normally used)?  Hardly.  The words positive and negative aren’t the right words.  They are too weak, too beggarly, and they lack the prophetic punch of scripture.  It is like turning up for a royal wedding in shorts and a tee shirt.  You are wearing clothes, but they bear no gravity or sense of occasion.  

I would like to posit a different way of being positive, a different view, a different attitude (because that is what is being spoken of when the word positive is used), which is more in line with God’s will/word than mine.

It is described by the magnificent and holy word - thankful.  Thankfulness is both a response to God’s goodness and a means of staying in that goodness – in the experience of it. 

The New Testament is replete with commands to be thankful.  It is being thankful for something, not just being thankful as a practice, so that better days might present themselves to us, or that by being thankful we might be nicer people.  These are not the point of thankfulness. 

Thanksgiving forms a significant part of the theology of the Apostle Paul.  When he speaks of giving of thanks he was far from, as in way ahead, of any notion of mere positivity. The book of Colossians points to thanksgiving being part of the new life of Christ being properly lived out by the church.  Alongside the themes of cosmic subjugation of principalities and powers, the display of God’s power to the ages, and the summing up of all things in Christ, we find the theme of thanksgiving.  It is a marker of the community of God’s people in Christ.  It is like circumcision (See Colossians 2) in that it marks out God’s people.  This is what we look like – or should look like.  Thankful.

We are enjoined to be thankful in all circumstances - not for them, in them.  This is about Christ’s lordship in our lives. 

Thanks giving will certainly make us more positive – but as an outcome, not as the goal. 

Thanksgiving is about someone, about his magnificence and lordship. 

The focus of being positive is personal, whereas the focus of thanksgiving is a person.   It is the difference between personal benefit and kingdom proclamation.

This could make a positive difference to us, were we to practise it more.

Give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

WAITING ON THE LORD

When David, King David, spoke of waiting on the Lord he was likely referring to the awkward space that patience requires before prayer is answered.

It is simply, and annoyingly, a time to wait. 

And it is the domain of trust, which is something not easy for people who are active, and therefore not the modus operandi of most kings. 

I believe that I shall look on the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your hearty take courage; wait for the Lord?”    Ps 27:13-14.  This is a man, a woman, who is literally waiting to see something they anticipate they will see. Waiting is equated with time and patience.  Also, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”  Ps 37:7.  Waiting is waiting.  Patience is what waiting requires. Being ‘still’ is not about, not moving around, but about refusing to be agitated and anxious in the process of waiting.  And waiting also assumes we are getting on with normal living, with its myriad demands and responsibilities.

But this doesn’t exhaust the meaning of waiting on the Lord.  It can also refer to the learned practice of silent prayer, as in waiting on the presence and voice of the Holy Spirit.  Those in a constant and nervous rush miss this means of hearing God communicate by his Spirit to them. It was likely this that Joshua learnt when he lingered in the tent of meeting after Moses had gone out.  Exodus 33:11.  “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.  When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.”  Whatever transpired in the tent with the young Joshua we can be sure that this was part of the reason he was chosen by God and prospered in his vocation.  He stayed.  He lingered.  He waited.  He heard.

At very least he did what we can do, and that is to create the capacity and the space to hear from God.  It is a discipline.  It takes time, and it is not as though God speaks every time.  But what is certain to happen is that we open a door to hear.  We gain the skill of having our ears opened to be able to listen when God does speak.  Whether or not we hear then and there or at some other time (which it often seems to be), we have made room for God, we have stilled the noise of the world we live in (and have to), so as to be able to hear the whisper of the Almighty.  He rarely shouts. He mostly intimates, whispers, and/or gently impresses something on us. 

Unless you wait you won’t hear - more to the point, you can’t hear.  Not having a capacity for something is the same as not being able to do something. 

Wait on the Lord.  Be still.  Take time.  Be silent. Calm the noise. Hear the voice of your Lord and God.   

Leadership - A Misconception and a Re-orientation

Character and Success.   Someone teaching at a Leadership Seminar opined that when success outstrips character a meltdown of virtue is inevitable, or at very least, likely – we can’t enjoy success beyond our character development. 

But, and in fact, I would take it for granted that most success invariably takes us beyond our present character, and that character has the capacity of stretching and strengthening to accommodate the new reality.  In other words a meltdown is far from inevitable, although always possible. 

Provided there is a reasonable platform of integrity we can develop under the pressures of temptation, success and adulation.  To a point.   As to the limits of that point only God knows, as we certainly don’t adequately know ourselves, no matter how self-reflective and emotionally intelligent.  Only a fool professes to truly know him or herself.

Community Responsibility.  Implicit in most seminars about leadership is the idea that growth and personal development is essentially a matter of personal choice/s and awareness.  Nothing should be further from the truth, and in fact may be a reason that contributes to the consistent failure of ethics and morality in leaders that the sun shines on.   

That I can truly know myself, and that I can self reflect in time before a disaster, is a delusion - a dangerous fallacy. 

A need for external authority and accountability is paramount to and for success.  Character formation isn’t an individual responsibility; this is a misconception.  It is something best done in a huddle. 

My behaviour is a personal responsibility in that no body else can make my choices, but it is a community responsibility in that I shouldn’t and can’t learn and develop by myself – to make those self same choices and decisions. 

And self-accountability, whist taught and assumed, simply isn’t enough.  It can’t be, as it demands I see myself for who I am, and that is impossible as well as a great folly. 

Observations

If you go to a football game in the UK you will hear the crowd, always impassioned, sometimes enraged, fully engaged.  You will also hear an occasional announcement, and the score being posted - but not much more.  Not that there is silence. There is the ebb and flow of the crowd in keeping with the pace and action in the game.  Noise isn’t absent.  

If you go to a football game in the USA you will hear the crowd – much as with the English.  But what you won’t hear is anything vaguely resembling silence.  From get go there is no let up.  None.  In fact you could be excused for thinking you were going to a show at which a game of football sometimes breaks out.  A good game too, when it does.

In the UK the game stops for injuries and penalties. 

In the US the game stops for TV advertising slots and for timeouts, and for injuries and penalties too...

If you order a meal in the UK you may or may not get good food, but what you will get are portions that can actually be consumed – in one sitting, by just one person. A family could starve.

If you order a meal in the US you may or may not get good food, but what you will get are portions that cannot reasonably be consumed – in one sitting, by just one person.  A family could be fed.

In the UK the streets are so narrow cars get asthma driving down them. 

In the USA the roads are so wide cars get lonely driving down them. 

So then - England is smaller, as are its streets, its portions, and its inhabitants are less vociferous. 

America is large, as are its streets, its food portions, and its inhabitants are less prone to silence.

Just an observation.

 

 

“I’m Not a Bad Person”

Let’s settle something by saying no one thinks they are a bad person. We, each of us, are the last person to admit we are bad.  (Our jails are filled with innocent people, apparently.) 

Two girls, one Scottish, the other Irish, were caught smuggling £1.5million in cocaine out of Peru. That is a lot of misery.  Having been caught they (firstly, were glad it wasn’t Thailand or Indonesia) went on to fabricate a story about being kidnapped then blackmailed.  They eventually changed their plea to guilty, and were subsequently incarcerated. 

One of the girls, released on parole, was interviewed and said two things that are either compounded naivety, or an inability to face truth.  Probably both. 

She stated what they did was a ‘moment of madness,’ and that she ‘wasn’t a bad person.’  

I beg to differ on both accounts. 

The ‘moment of madness’ was a calculated, deliberate act that took time, energy, risk and yes, a touch of madness.  But this is far from a momentary lapse of reason.  We all have those but this isn’t one of them.  To relegate this crime to a moment of madness is plainly untrue, and disingenuous of her to suggest so.  This was one long moment in which the cupidity of their actions could have been walked away from, time and again.  A moment of madness – far from it. 

As to what defines a bad person.  It is our actions.  We have no other way of telling, or making a judgment.  The courts certainly don’t. 

What is bad is bad for others.  The suffering, which in a moment of lucidity the girls admitted to, would have been colossal.  People would not have merely got high – some would have died in the thrall of these drugs.

Yes, she was, they were, bad.  They conspired to smuggle, they put many lives at extreme risk, they thought personal gain of more value than human lives, they lied, and who knows whether their plea of guilty was a genuine admittance of guilt or forced on them to get a reduced sentence.   If this doesn’t all add up to bad, what does? 

Of course they don’t have to remain that way.  (And maybe they are on a journey, possibly evidenced by their frank admission that what they could have unleashed would have been on their consciences, and other people’s headstones, for a long time.) 

One way to move on from bad behaviour is to admit to it, take the rap – be responsible.  That would have gained her a credibility she surely has exempted herself from to date. 

 

UFC - Human Cockfighting

 

U.F.C. - Human Cockfighting

 

This new form of human carnage is touted as being one of the world’s fastest growing, if you will - sports.[1]  Lest this impress, some of the fastest growing/moving phenomena in the world today would include ISIS or Tsunami’s – neither of which are particularly sporting.

In other words, its growth and influence bear no resemblance to its value.  Its fiscal value is through the roof – its moral value through the floor. 

But its proponents and promoters – there are always promoters – insist it is a sport, thugs don’t indulge in it, and it is safer than boxing.  To begin with, whoever said that (professional) boxing is safe?  And what terms adequately describe someone kicking another person, and bashing their heads with all their ‘sporty’ energy?  Our heads were never, ever fashioned to be assaulted so viciously and senselessly.  Besides, if this happened in the streets the protagonists would be jailed.  

Most other (actual) sports are facing years of litigation, and are quick-smart introducing new measures to protect the head from trauma, whilst this sideshow finds new pleasures in bleeding heads and battered bodies.  A head clash in football is largely incidental but not in U.F.C. – where it is often the point.  Were it not for ‘rounds’ that are timed, I postulate we would have dead people in the cage. 

Let’s be plain - this new version of the old coliseum is brutal, thuggish, and dangerous.  The British Medical Association unequivocally condemned it in 2013 because of its shocking and chronic effect on the brain, which may go along way to explaining its participants.  Doctors, I'm afraid, are a voice in the wilderness.  Popularity and profits are the Promised Land. 

The CEO of Headway, the brain injury association in the UK, is nonplussed that U.F.C. can even be considered a sport, let alone that it is allowed to continue legally.  Cockfighting is banned but we promote the human version - go figure?

And of possibly greater concern are the crowds who attend these events.  They bay for blood, plain and simple. 

What culture leads to this that doesn’t lead to worse? 

 

 

[1] The Times.  Saturday March 12, 2016 – Danielle Sheridan.  Most of the facts mentioned (not necessarily the responses) are her research.     

 

How the Mighty have Fallen - We may be devolving by the Look of Things

This may not change your life but it couldn’t go unsaid.

 

We think we have advanced as a civilization because of the accumulation of knowledge and having the wool pulled over our eyes by scientific progress.  In fact the exact opposite may be true if Florence has anything to say to us.  We have regressed in so many ways.  Walking the streets of Florence makes us realize that a sense of grandeur has been lost to us, a sense of artistic excellence has all but disappeared, and a sense of beauty has been rendered over.  And we are much the poorer, cultural exiles, damned by our pragmatism and loss of heart.

As for grandeur we can’t afford it anymore – it takes too long and it costs too much.  The Palazzo Pitti, for instance, has more marble in it than you can imagine and a look of sweeping elegance that we thought was the domain of ancient kings, and so it was.  The ruling classes of Italy lived in surroundings that make the grandest hotels look garish by comparison.  Even the religious rulers, known for their piety and poverty (?), lived in surroundings that can’t but help have given them a sense of the glories of heaven. No expense was spared in making houses for the holy.  They were the pride of Europe- which may well have been half their problem, but nevertheless in their original intention what magnificence was heaped upon magnificence to show the glory of God.  The Basilica of San Lorenzo is plain enough on the outside, even rough-hewn – somewhat like us – but inside is a vast temple of light, colour and beauty.  If your jaw doesn’t drop then we have deserved our fast food outlets and malls, trinkets and plastic.  What happened to us?

As for art, it was a declaration of the great themes of Christianity, plus some.  It didn’t exist for its own sake but for the sake of someone. Sure they got a little confused at times making both Mary and the baby Jesus something they weren’t, but their confusion is surely better than our artlessness in God’s name.  They unashamedly attempted to do for God what we hesitantly refuse to do.  They made his name glorious, they made his fame spread through the land, through the earth.  We on the other hand make his praise mundane and his name something to be avoided.  Our doves, crosses and timidity would have made them shrink with shame.  The Italians (at least those Italians) are robust, full-blooded people; we are at times a pasty replica, terrified of sensuality and our humanity. 

Our celebration of humanity is clothed in embarrassment and abstinence. Good grief, how the mighty have been neutered.  Christian art was the expression of art; today our art is sidelined due to its lack of authenticity and boldness.  We must learn to celebrate with more than songs. We have something to say - the most important thing to say.  How can we possibly not say it with gusto, panache, dedication and style?  It was certainly once said like this. If you visit the Uffiza Gallery you’ll see what I mean.  There are some things that must be seen to be understood – and even then?

As for beauty, it is the hallmark of most things Florentine - an enduring beauty that is reflective of an enduring and fiercely beautiful God.  They specialized in beauty but today it is the domain of a few women and floral arrangements.  Flowers are nice and women are beautiful but that’s not the point.  More is beautiful than we have allowed.  Beauty, in a thousand guises, attracts us.  We want to be surrounded by it but we have quite forgotten what it looks like.  And even though beauty is in the eye of the beholder we suffer from impaired vision, we have cataracts on our soul, stigmatisms on our desires. 

So, how can a grey pragmatism, so popular in the church world, fill us with light and joy?  How can a culture robbed of all that makes a culture be attractive to any but us?  We have made duty the central virtue of a Christian’s world instead of life.  We have regressed I fear, fallen from a height virtually beyond view today.  Civilisation has become a shopping bonanza, with little time given to the soul and its need for grandeur, art and beauty, let alone truth, love and life.  We may have progressed in achievement but not in the celebration of the soul and its intense desires.

Go to Florence and have a peek.  You will be stunned.  But whatever you do don’t forget to look up, as it is where half the attraction is.  It would be so easy to think you were at another shopping mall (even the Italians) instead of one of the most attractive cities in the world -  as far as art is concerned.

And then, when you think grandeur, art and beauty has an end you go to Siena.  The Basilica of San Domenico, aside from the rather gruesome head of Saint Catherine, is filled with art treasures that made me emotional and not for religious reasons.  What poverty of soul we allow, what greatness we have let slip.  And then to add insult to injury the Cathedral of Siena leaves you short of breath.  The floor alone took six centuries to complete.  We get impatient if something takes longer than six months, but six centuries?  The library in this cathedral is one of the most beautiful rooms you’ll ever have the privilege of seeing.  The floor, walls, and ceiling are stunning testimonies to creative genius, filled with brilliant colour, design and daring.

I’m speechless (a rare occurrence) with wonder, speechless with how far we’ve plummeted.  How the mighty have fallen. 

Savvy Gifts

Your bank balance need not determine the value of your giving of gifts.  Thoughtfulness is better than extravagance, and care better than cash – unless of course it is a lot of cash (in which case thoughtfulness’ and‘care’ are more easily sublimated).

For Christmas I received a box of personally embossed and named thank you cards.  To tell the truth it is one of the best gifts I have received for ages.  People love getting hand-written cards - I do. They are personal, thoughtful and encouraging; and you don’t have too write much.  Along with the same colored envelopes you have a great little means of thoughtful communication. Beats e-mail.

Another great gift I received a few years ago was a photo of me, as a child, standing alongside a plane – huge to a kid and evocative (I went on to get my pilots license many years later). My daughter had the photo copied onto a canvas and stretched over a frame – very nice. 

Not savvy: sending Valentine cards or flowers by way of stealth to someone who has no idea of your ‘sniper’ affection.  Valentines day, aside from being a commercial bonanza, is meant for people in already established relationships as far as I can ascertain.  I don’t particularly enjoy being targeted from ‘left of field.’  Maybe you do? 

The Wedding

The setting was all you’d hope for: formal rooms at a London botanical garden, sunshine in May (a bonus), and family and friends gathered to celebrate with bride and groom. Wonderful.

Read More