You know better

22 10 2012

You know the persistent song-in-your-head phenomenon?  It’s not always a song you like, but it’s on loop. These two lines have been my loop this week :

“I’ve let go the need to know why,
For you know better than I.”

Are you with me in finding these hard lines to sing truthfully?  I always know better – don’t you?  It started young for me and  I can remember the vibes of frustration from my parents when I doggedly stuck to my point of view and refused to pay attention to theirs.  I knew better then; I know better now.

Then there’s the “why” question.  That starts young too, as anyone who’s ever met a three year old knows. And I have a theory that three year olds don’t really want an answer their “why” questions. And to be honest, we run out of steam and don’t want to give the answer.(Question: why do I need to wear a coat?  Answer: Because it’s cold outside. Q: Why? A: Because it’s winter. Q: Why? A: Because it is. Q: Why?… you know the scene.)

What does the child want with the asking?  It’s a way of maintaining engagement with the adult, drawing them into their world, seeking to build the relationship. But when I ask “why” of God, it’s often just the opposite. It’s a selfish  “why me?” question – sub-text “you don’t care, it’s not fair, I hate you.” It’s that kind of “why” that we need to let go of. And God? He wants to maintain the relationship. He is always good. He knows better than I.

So what about Joseph, King of Dreams?  The Bible narrative doesn’t let us inside his private world. Though the Dreamworks film gives him the song to sing, exploring faith and hope, it’s only a guess about what may have been going through his mind.  It’s not until Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers that we get a hint of his faith – “God sent me here” (Genesis 45:5-7).  That’s a confident faith statement to the family who had exiled him into slavery. It’s a big picture view that must have allowed Joseph hope in the dark times (“But maybe knowing
I don’t know is part of getting through”), and confidence of his being God’s man in Egypt.

Joseph’s faith results in status and prosperity and although there must have been the temptation to taunt his brothers with, “I told you so,” he has grown out of that cocky know it all attitude  into the man who is used by God to provide for his family and, in the broader scheme, to preserve the people of God.

Were the tough times worth it? I think Joseph would have sung a definite “Yes”. I’d like to learn to sing with him.


What goes around comes around

6 09 2012

Violence, sex, massacre, brutality, deceit – more the words to describe the action in a modern thriller than words to apply to a book in the Bible. But they are all there: Judges carries these awful themes time and again.  There’s a cycle of disobedience, foreign oppression, cries of distress and deliverance. You would think the people would learn after a couple of revolutions of the cycle, but they repeated the pattern six times, as though it were Groundhog Day.

What’s worse, the judges that God sends as deliverers don’t seem much better than the people.

What’s worse still (by my reckoning), is that four of them are listed among the “greats” of faith in Hebrews 11

So, having made myself read stuff that I didn’t want to read, what have I learned from the book of Judges?

  • God remains faithful to his people throughout this dreadful time
  • Doing your own thing is not a good option
  • God offers opportunities for a fresh start; the downward corkscrew is not inevitable
  • He uses unlikely people, those who fail drastically, to be part of his purposes
  • His words in Isaiah 55:8 are true! – “I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.”

I need to keep processing all this. I still don’t “feel happy” about Judges and I need to pray that my way of thinking aligns more closely with God’s – not just in what I think about these circumstances  thousands of years ago, but about my own circumstances – and ask myself, “Will you stop doing your own thing and align yourself with God’s way of working?”

Faith is life-defining

24 08 2012

What is faith?  It’s difficult to define, but maybe I can get there by thinking what it is not.  Faith is not the warm fuzzies of spiritual life somehow dissociated from the real world.  If I am to take Hebrews chapter 11 (where Wordlive has taken me) seriously, then I need to have a more robust notion of what faith is.

Nor is faith about believing difficult or impossible things just for the sake of it.  So it is not credulity, though at times it must have seemed like it (eg Abraham and Sarah Having another laugh). It is much more.

Faith is life-defining, as the other examples in the chapter show.  It is believing that there is a God, that he has made promises to mankind, promises that he will ultimately keep, even although is may appear that he has taken a holiday.  So there is something about trusting God’s faithfulness much more than it is about conjuring up a spiritual state for others to envy – the “I wish I had your faith” brigade. There’s also something about living out our beliefs, integrating all areas of life.

In one of his interviews in Mitch Albom’s book I mentioned, the Reb says this:

“‘Mitch,’ he said, ‘faith is about doing.  You are how you act, not just how you believe.'”

He seems to have got it right.

“So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds’.” (James 2:17-18)

Or as The Message puts it: “Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.”

So I need to have a life-defining faith, an integrated faith, faith that God is faithful no matter what.

Inspiring a generation

17 08 2012

Inspiring a generation – the theme of London 2012. Fantastic! Now Lord Coe has been tasked with making the proposed legacy of the Olympics a reality.

At this distance, there is still enthusiasm and pride in what Team GB has accomplished, both in organisation and in sporting performance. But can we make it last? If we don’t build on what we’ve achieved, does it negate the achievement? If we don’t pass the baton (successfully!) and inspire a new generation of sportsmen and women, will we in some sense be disqualified?

The failure to pass the baton successfully rears its head in the book of Judges in the Old Testament section of the Bible. (This is hair-shirt stuff; I wish I didn’t have to read it.) Let’s gatecrash at chapter 2:

“After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel…[They] did what was evil… the abandoned the Lord… they chased after other gods… they angered the Lord.” (Selected from Judges 2:10-12)

While this is a dreadful indictment on the new generation, what had happened to the baton of faith that was supposed to be passed securely to their hands?

Strict instructions had been given to the people of God to prevent such a fumble. Here is the famous Shema in Deuteronomy 6:9 which is the first portion of Scripture that a Jewish child learns –

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to those commands I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again. Tie them to your hands as a reminder, and wear them on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Sixteen times in the surrounding chapters, the people are told to be careful – to obey, not to forget, to remember. It is not automatic that faith will continue; they must work at it.

So what had happened that there was a generation that did not acknowledge the Lord? Had the previous generation failed to teach their children well? Did the children dismiss what they were taught as sentimental musings about the good old days which they had outgrown?  We don’t know. But we do know the tragic consequences.

There are scary moments in being the “previous generation”. The thought that my grandchildren could ever grow up as a generation who “did not acknowledge the Lord” is anathema to me.  How do you let that one slip?

To go back to the Olympic metaphor – is it deliberate, a folding of the arms across the chest, a refusal to pass the baton, as if to hold on to it were to retain the glory? Or is it a drop, an active turning against God that leaves the next runner waiting without purpose? Or is it a fumble, where the next runner runs on, too early out of the changeover box, unaware that the baton is not there.  They run hard, outrun others, cross the line, but are disqualified.  What a disastrous race!

If we are to inspire a generation, we need to take seriously our own race, our part in carrying the baton carefully, our part in the handover, and pray that neither we, nor they, will be disqualified.

Run well.

Listen and learn

What are you talking about…now?

30 07 2012

Way back, long before sports coaches or psychologists said it was a good idea, monitoring self-talk was considered important.  I came across this example the other day:

‘Stay with God! Take heart. Don’t quit.  I’ll say it again: Stay with God.’

This is self-talk attributed to King David in Psalm 27 where he lets us in on his struggles.  He has enemies who are out to get him.  We’re not told who they are, but they’re scary enough for David to pray for protection. My guess is that he had a “faith bank” that he could draw on; he had experienced God’s goodness and faithfulness to him in other tough situations, and so when the chips are down again, he knows which playlist is going to help.

Maybe a clue comes earlier:

‘When my heart whispered, “Seek God,”
my whole being replied,
“I’m seeking him!” ‘

“Seeking” isn’t a term we use very much – except in children’s games – and there’s an intensity about it that sets a challenge.  Life with God is a “whole being” deal, not just a nod in his direction now and again when I feel like it, or when “shuffle” throws him in my path.  There’s a positive choice involved – faith or doubt, staying or leaving, persevering or quitting – and I need to be prepared so that it’s easy to select the best playlist for the moment.

‘Stay with God! Take heart. Don’t quit.  I’ll say it again: Stay with God.’

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Scratchy heed, Miss

26 05 2012

In a previous life, I was a secondary school teacher in the north east of Scotland.  It was not my home area and at first I struggled with understanding the dialect.  But this little phrase was commonly used, and didn’t need translating – “Scratchy heed, Miss.”  It was used if pupils didn’t understand what they had to do, or if a classmate gave a wrong answer, and probably (under their breath) about my struggles with their dialect.  Something didn’t make sense and needed to be addressed.

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to see that my readings were taking me to Mark’s gospel – easy reading, familiar ground, nice stories.  It didn’t pan out as I expected and I was left many times saying, “Scratchy heed, Jesus”,  like when –

  • Crowds are flocking to Jesus for healing.  He’s getting a reputation as a miracle worker who will meet people’s needs, but it’s the “evil spirits” who identify him as “the Son of God”.  Are they the ones who know who he really is?
  • 12 men are chosen to take Jesus’ message “out”, but when things get stormy, they’re not even sure who Jesus is.  They have given up their jobs and changed their lifestyle to follow and are now asking, “who is this man, that even the winds and waves obey him?”  Should they not have checked him out better?  This is scary, but is it scarier to be in the storm, or in the presence of the one who calms the storm?
  • Jesus is misunderstood even by his closest family who think he’s crazy and he doesn’t do anything to persuade them otherwise.  Can a Mum be wrong?!  And when the religious leaders suggest that he is demon-possessed, he replies with stories.  Wouldn’t you want to defend yourself rather than have a “once upon a time” session?
  • And what about the parables?  I supposed that parables are a teaching technique to make what Jesus says easier to understand, but…wrong.  “I am using these stories to conceal everything about [the Kingdom of God] from outsiders.” (Mark 4:11)

Through all my “scratchy heed” moments (and this is only chapters 3 and 4), Jesus’ words to the guys in the boat niggle away.  This time, it’s his question – “Do you still not have faith in me?”  And that sets off a raft of other musings…

Delete the hyphen

11 05 2012

“Ian, will you DO something!” was a cry that periodically rang out in our house when my mother was in a fix.  The sub text was that my father was too self-absorbed to notice that there was a crisis.  The question not to ask was, “What do you want me to do?”

Graphic by Ellen Lupton

Many religious people have a well-intentioned “do something” mentality – I must do religious things, even if I’m not sure what they are, for God to accept me; I must get it all together before I can pray; I need to sort myself out and then maybe…

Hebrews addresses this issue.  The writer tells first century Jewish Christians that they are too religious for their own good, too bent on doing. 

Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Hebrews in The Message, calls them “Jesus-and” Christians: Jesus-and-angels, Jesus-and-Moses, Jesus-and-priesthood.  Hebrews, he says, “deletes the hyphens” and helps the reader refocus on God’s action in Jesus.

However, don’t be tempted to delete the hyphens and sit down to rest.  It’s not enough to say, “God-accepts-me-as-I-am-so-I- don’t-need-to-do-anything.”  True, God invites us as we are; but we must respond to the invitation – “Our part in the action is the act of faith” (Peterson) – and engage with the life change that inevitably follows.

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