Random Lent Thought for Friday March 31st: Paying the Price

This morning in my devotions I read these words:

‘Then (Jesus) said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels’ (Luke 9:23-26, NIV 2011).

This passage has been badly misunderstood down through the centuries, through the misapplication of the ‘take up your cross’ imagery. The ‘cross’ has been understood to mean any suffering that comes our way (eg. my chronic illness, my financial struggles, my difficult mother-in-law); we are called to carry it patiently, and if we do, the Lord will use it to shape our character and grow Christlikeness in us.

That may or may not be true, but it’s not what this passage was about.

The key phrase is ‘must deny themselves’. Early Christians in the time the evangelists wrote the gospels were being hauled before the courts and told to deny their faith in Jesus – to make a break with Christ and return to the pagan worship of idols. Even in the Jewish community, the book of Acts tells stories of the early Christians being brought before the Sanhedrin where they were told to cease and desist their preaching about Jesus – to disobey Jesus’ command to spread his message to everyone – effectively, to deny their loyalty to Jesus.

That’s what’s in view here. Jesus challenges his followers: if you want to be my disciples, you’ve got to be willing to deny yourselves rather than deny me. Deny yourselves the easy life that would come if you just went along with everyone’s demands and expectations and blended back in with the world around you. To ‘take up your cross’ is to refuse to do that. Someone who was carrying a cross in the time of Jesus was on their way out to a place of execution; the Roman empire was about to kill them. To follow me, Jesus is saying, means to be willing to be publicly identified with me and to take the consequences of that identification, whatever they may be. It led our Master to the Cross. It might well mean suffering for us as well.

So the challenge for me today is, if I claim to be a follower of Jesus, am I willing to be publicly identified with him, no matter whether or not that is popular? By my actions and my words, am I willing to be public about my allegiance to Jesus, and to the flawed, fallible, slightly crackpot group of people who are called by his name? That’s what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus.

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 30th: Love is an action word

I was a paperboy when I was a teenager. I worked out of a newsagent’s shop in Southminster, Essex. I was the relief boy, so I had to know everyone else’s paper route; if someone called in sick, it was my job to deliver their papers. Otherwise, I helped Ian, my boss, in the store.

One day when I went to work I discovered that there had been an IRA bombing in London the night before; several people had been killed, and the newspapers were all full of it. Ian looked at me and said, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian, because you Christians are supposed to love everyone, and there’s no way I could love anyone who could do a thing like that”.

At the time I couldn’t think of an answer, but I know how I would answer now. I’d say, “I agree with you – if love is a feeling; there’s no way I could sit around and work up a good feeling for terrorists. But in the Bible, love is an action word, not a feeling word. Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet because he loved them (feeling); he washed their feet as a way of loving them (action). And if one of those terrorists was thirsty, I could make them a cup of tea. I might not enjoy it, but I could do it”.

That’s what it means to love our enemies. Love is an action word. So is forgiveness. Many people say, “You don’t know how badly he hurt me; I can never forgive him”. Once again, they’re talking about their feelings; they’re saying “I can’t make the hurt go away”. But forgiveness is not about changing the way we feel; it’s about changing the way we act. It’s about voluntarily giving up the right to exact revenge. “I will not vent my rage on you by trying to hurt you back. Instead, I will find a good thing I can do for you, and do it. Today, tomorrow, and the next day – for as long as it takes”.

Listen to Paul:

‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”, says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:17a, 19-21, NIV 2011).

Paul’s definition of love and forgiveness is boringly prosaic: give them a plate of food and a cup of tea. Worry about the feeling later. Do what God has told you to do (the action) and leave the feeling in God’s hands. Healing is his business; faith, expressing itself in obedience, is ours.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday March 29th: Love Your Enemies

When I first started getting interested in the Anabaptist tradition of Christian spirituality, I thought loving your enemies was a peripheral practice, but now I see that I was wrong. Loving your enemies is not peripheral: it’s right at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel story is a story of a God who loves his enemies.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).

This is what God is like. He doesn’t check to see whether we’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he lets the sun shine down on us. He doesn’t investigate whether we love him or hate him before he sends us rain. God pours his love out on everyone, whether they love him or not.  That’s why he came among us in Jesus and gave his life for us on the Cross. As Paul says:

‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

‘Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!‘ (Romans 5:6-10, italics mine).

This is the heart of the Gospel. This is what is happening on Good Friday. In order for reconciliation to take place, someone must decide not to strike back. Someone must say, “Rather than take the revenge which is my due, I will choose to absorb the evil – even though I don’t feel like doing it – and respond with love instead”. On the Cross, God says, “That will be me. That’s what I will do”. We reject him and vilify him and crucify him, and his response is “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. We can kill him, but we can’t kill his love for us.

“Be perfect”, in the original language, meant something like “be complete”; Luke renders it “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful”. Jesus’ meaning is “As your heavenly Father’s love is complete, leaving no one out (not even his enemies), so you are to imitate him and love your enemies too”.

Tomorrow we’ll think a little more about what this might mean for us.

Random Lent Thought for Tuesday March 28th: Focus and Trust

Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

‘“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’ (Matthew 6:25-34)

This is one of those gospel passages that is so outrageous that you just know it must have come from Jesus, because if it hadn’t, no-one would have dared to make it up! Jesus didn’t live in wealthy suburbia; he lived in first-century Palestine, where the poor had plenty to worry about! Hunger, thirst, homelessness, the tender mercies of vicious Roman soldiers – life was precarious at best for many people in Jesus’ audience. So how dare he tell them not to worry? And how dare he tell them that if they seek first the kingdom of God, God will provide for them? Throughout human history, how many people have starved to death believing that?

I’ve come to believe that we have to accept that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point here (as he so often does). And what’s the point? It’s not so much worry as focus: what are we focussing our lives on? The enjoyment of luxuries or the fulfilment of the promise of God’s kingdom?

In the Lord’s prayer we are taught to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, then God’s kingdom has come. What is God’s will? A world where everyone has enough and no one has too much; a world of compassion, justice, and genuine community; a world where people turn from false gods to the one true God, the creator of all. Jesus is telling us to focus on this, to place all our hopes in this, and to direct our energies in this direction, rather than the gratification of our own egos or our own hunger for more and more luxuries.

Focus on God’s will and God’s kingdom, and live in trust in our heavenly Father. That’s our lesson for today. I think we’re going to need a little help with this one, Lord!

Random Lent Thought for Monday March 27th: The Rich Fool

There are some biblical passages that are so familiar that I’m tempted to skip through them on the assumption that I’ve already learned that lesson. Alas, the truth is that all too often all I’ve done is think about them, without actually doing anything about them (a particular temptation for introverted intuitives, I believe!). One of those passages is the Parable of the Rich Fool. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, here it is (you can find it in Luke chapter 16):

‘Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

‘Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

‘And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

‘“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

‘“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

‘“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”’

Jesus sandwiches this parable between two powerful and categorical statements. The first is a warning to be on our guard against all kinds of greed, because ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. Today, of course, there is a powerful advertising industry dedicated to convincing me that that’s exactly what life consists of (not to mention politicians who tell is it’s our patriotic duty to consume more and more in the service of the false god of The Economy). This all ties in to the idolatry of my greed; the delusional state in which i think, “I’ll be happy if I can just have…” (insert your own preferred next purchase here). This is delusional, because none of the stuff we’ve bought so far has made us happy; it’s just made us more fixated on burglar alarms.

Jesus addresses this issue by setting it in the context of eternity. When we meet our Maker face to face, the size of the bank account our relatives are fighting over won’t make a blind bit of difference. But there are things we can focus on, right now, that will make a huge difference on that day: loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is true wealth, Jesus says; this is what he means at the end by ‘being rich toward God’.

So Jesus ends with the second categorical statement: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” God, please help me not just to think about this, but to practice it: not to accumulate more and more stuff, but to focus on the things that truly matter in the light of eternity. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Sunday March 26th: Inflated Speech

Jesus said, “All you need to say is simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:36, NIV 2011).

A few years ago a machine left a message on my answering service. The machine said, ‘Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman would like to personally invite you to…’ At that point I stopped listening, because I realized that if Raj Sherman and I can’t even agree on what constitutes a personal invitation, I probably don’t want to attend whatever it is he’s inviting me to. A personal invitation is an invitation delivered by one person to another person. A machine programmed to make robocalls cannot deliver a personal invitation.

This is an example of how inflated speech has crept into our vocabulary. Another example, one that has become to common that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so meaningless, is for people to describe themselves as ‘passionate’ about something. “I’m passionate about reconciliation’, or ‘mission’, or ‘building community’. Personally, I’ve always thought it was better to let other people describe me as passionate (or not), rather than making that claim for myself. But nowadays you can’t just be ‘interested’ in something, or even ‘quite good at it’ – you have to be ‘passionate’ about it!

Another example is in the baptismal liturgy in the (Canadian Anglican) Book of Alternative Services (that we took over lock, stock, and barrel from the American 1979 Prayer Book), in which we are asked ‘Do you promise to obey (Jesus) as your Lord?’ I am absolutely certain that no one who has made that promise has ever kept it; the absolute best that I, infected as I am by original sin, can promise is to TRY to obey Jesus as my Lord. Once again, inflated speech.

From Anabaptist and Quaker friends I’ve learned about the deep desire for truthfulness, for simple speech, that makes us reluctant to speak more than we can deliver. An oath is dangerous because it gives us the illusion that we’re in control of the future, when we’re not even completely in control of our portion of the future (all sorts of calamities beyond my control can effect my ability to deliver on the oath). To simply say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, or ‘I’ll do my best’, is to acknowledge our human finiteness and the fact that we’re not ultimately in control. To say “I’m actually quite interested in church growth and I’ve done a lot of reading and learning about it” (if it’s true) is probably (for 90% of the people who say it) more modest and honest and accurate than to say “I’m passionate about church growth”.

It concerns me that our politicians have been using inflated speech for so long that they don’t realize that they’re making the language meaningless (and you all know who I’m thinking about right now, although he’s only the latest manifestation of this). But that isn’t what should concern me the most. What should concern me the most is the number of times I myself treat language like this. God is not impressed with my outrageous exaggerations. God, the psalmist tells us, ‘desires truth in the inward parts’ (Psalm 51:6, KJV). May the Lord deliver us from inflated speech, and may he teach us the virtue of truthfulness and modesty.

‘We British: the Poetry of a People’

29958072This book isn’t quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it’s more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it’s an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn’t well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles.

For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). Like all poetry fans reading the book, I was ticked off by the omission of some of my favourites (John Masefield, R.S. Thomas), but a book of 640 pages attempting to introduce the reader to 1,350 years of British poetry is bound to offend in that way. Overall I thought the book was brilliant. And I’d give this one word of reading advice: read it aloud, and with a spouse or partner or friend if you can. Marci and I read it in coffee shops and we thoroughly enjoyed this treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Five stars, and well-deserved.

Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People (Fourth Estate, 2016).