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Archive for the ‘Faith/God/questions’ Category

I hit the big ‘3-0’ next week and so I’m having a bit of a party at the weekend.  Naturally, I’ve been wondering about what to wear and shoes of course play a big part in this.  Trawling through the internet I came across these weird and wonderful creations from ‘Irregular Choice’ (www.irregularchoice.com) that actually really make me smile and feel a little bit brighter!

True, some of them are plain hideous and most of them cost an arm and a leg so my conscience is already kicking in and wondering how it can possibly be justifiable to spend so much on shoes when many people in the world don’t even have clean water.  I’m someone who has a real social conscience about things like this, is prone to thinking it’s a frivolous waste of time and money and rolls their eyes when girls go ga-ga over shoes, as if they’re going to bring them happiness and fulfilment!!  I reckon more people should think seriously about these points of view.

And yet…….!  I wonder whether perhaps it makes more sense to spend a lot of money on fewer pairs of shoes and then really treasure them, rather than buying cheap and easily disposable clothing of lesser quality on a regular basis (The ‘Primark Effect’!).  And besides, beauty and creativity are such necessary things in life to make it worth living that we need to keep hold of them.  Otherwise,  what is the point of everyone having clean water, simply so they can exist, in the first place?!

I have some friends who work for Luton Churches Education Trust and they go round schools doing anger management, self-esteem and self harm prevention groups as well as much more.  However, they always make sure to go away on retreat at least 3 or 4 times a year to refresh.  It’s like they need to remind themselves of goodness and beauty and vibrance so they can go back into the difficult situations and bring those qualities into them.  Similarly, I’ve always thought I wouldn’t want to live somewhere really perfect and beautiful (like Switzerland!!) because there are so many places that are struggling and need input and help.  (Blatantly there are no perfect places, so everywhere has need to some degree, but there are clearly places that are more desperate than others!)  At the same time, I know I need to get away to beautiful, harmonious places every now and again to recharge and remember what it is I am actually aiming to develop in the more broken places.  Plainness and poverty have no inherent value in themselves I think, although their advantage is that they can bring simplicity to an already over-complicated life, and focus our attention on what really matters.  But God’s kind of life is described as abundant or ‘to the full’ and I’m sure beauty and design are included in this, provided they do not become the centre of everything!

So please sit back, relax and enjoy the following creativity and vibrance as much as I did!

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Are you a high D (Dominant), high I (Influential), high S (Stable/Steady) or a high C (Compliant)?  Are the things that you value theoretical, social, aesthetic, individualist, economic or traditional?  What skills do you have specifically – team player?  Tact and diplomacy?  Self-motivation?  Other-motivation?  Which group do you belong in?  Which box can you be squeezed in?

I’m in the box of people who hate psychometric tests!

Ok, it’s probably because they make you face some harsh truths about yourself in black and white.  I recently had to do an hour of these tests for a theology course I’ve started and one of the results is that I’m a ‘high C’.  According to the lecturer, high Cs are the hardest people to understand and everyone should stick their tongues out at us.  ‘That’s flippin great’, I thought to myself.  In summary, high Cs like to know stuff.  They think about things a lot and analyse, asking lots of questions and pulling things apart to understand them.  They have a thirst for the truth, a sense of awe and curiosity about the unknown.  The upside of this is that good questions lead to good answers, insight and hopefully wisdom that have practical impact on life.  The downside is that a lack of understanding can become unsettling and anxiety-provoking, driving us to over-analyse and mull about things half obsessively.  We can come across as a bit preoccupied and unavailable sometimes – sorry about that!

The other day I was on the train going to meet a friend, gazing out onto the passing fields and my high C brain kicked into action.  This was the gist of the (ridiculous in a lot of ways) inner conversation:

‘I’m really not feeling like going to see this friend.  That means that when I arrive I’m going to have to pretend to be positive and interested.’  (Images of me looking decidedly positive and interested flash through my mind).

(I’m guessing that most people would stop here if they had this thought in their head and then they’d move on?)  But no, my mind is perplexed and continues to ask:

‘Well, isn’t that being inauthentic and fake then?  And therefore, should I bother trying to be interested and positive at all when it’s not really real?’

‘If I have to force myself do something I know is right rather than spontaneously wanting to do it and ‘feeling it’, is it just me being a hypocrite, a cup washed on the outside but filthy on the inside?’

‘Yeah, and taking it one step further, is the Holy Spirit of love not really alive and well in me, causing me to be naturally loving and good (as described in my blog ‘Two ‘Apple’ Trees’ a few months ago)?

This is the point at which it feels like my over-analysing brain has deconstructed everything to the lowest common denominator (usually self-bashing) and I’m feeling a bit glum and tied in knots.  That can be the problem with thinking a lot!  It’s really kind of funny/silly looking back on it now.

But, thankfully, as I was gazing out of the train window that day, another perspective piped up in my mind:

‘Well, maybe it’s a misunderstanding to think that when God’s spirit of love flows into us he completely takes over and we effortlessly become changed, better people.  We don’t become robots having our mind and will hijacked by God.’

‘Ok, so maybe it’s more like the spirit works alongside us, awakening our consciences, prompting us to do something, bringing things to light, convicting us and creating the desire in us to want to be different, even if we can’t instantly be so.  The choice as to whether we act on those promptings is still ours but if we do then we’re working in synergy with God.’

‘Hmmm, in that case, with regard to my friend, perhaps I’m not being fake if I try to be interested and positive even though I don’t feel like it.  Perhaps I’m actually responding to the nudge telling me that it would be right and most loving towards my friend to relate to them in this way today.  And as I try to, God will help me.  I don’t ‘feel it’, but I want to do best by my friend, so I’m taking the necessary steps towards that anyway, and that’s evidence of the Holy Spirit.’

‘Yeah that makes sense.  Especially based on my own past experience’.

End of conversation.

Well, it wasn’t really because I wasn’t dead, but for the purposes of this blog that was the end of the mind conversation!

I suppose this whole reflection on the train was really digging deeper in to the whole ‘saved by grace or works’ question.  In the distant past, people seem to have focussed more on the ‘saved by works’ side, which meant earning God’s approval and favour by being good.  These days though I think we are emphasising so much the ‘saved by grace’ side alone that we don’t do much and are then astonished when our life and character go on as always with all the same old habits and struggles.

Of course we have been rescued by God from the tyranny of evil and been adopted into his family so that his spirit can come and live within us now and actually transform us as a completely free gift.  However, unless we take hold of that gift and apply it to ourselves in some way, and then act out of it, we will never be transformed so it won’t become a reality in our lives.  It’s the same as the love of a lover.  It’s the most wonderful thing, but unless you grasp it and open up to it, it won’t have any effect on you.  And it will have even more effect on you if you commit back to the lover with all the effort that this actually requires.  It’s not wrong to not feel like doing something good.  Loving with all your mind means choosing the right decision even when you’d rather not.  Surely this is most often the only way forgiveness has half a chance of coming about, it certainly doesn’t usually start with beautiful feelings!

Surprise, surprise, I love the way this all ties in with psychology!  Neurologically, you can transform who you are by what you regularly do.  When you make a certain choice time and time again (such as to stay behind after the meeting and do the dirty job no one else wants), eventually your brain will form long-standing connections between nerves so that you no longer have to consciously think about what you’re doing.  It’s just the same as when you learn to drive.  At first it takes a lot of thought about the gears, the pedals, the steering and hopefully also the brakes.  But sooner or later it becomes so automatic because your brain has laid down a ‘neural highway’ to travel along every time you want to drive.  You have learned the skill.  And of course, once behaviour has become automatic it has become your character.  You are actually a different person rather than just acting like one.  When you do good things they are no longer the exceptions, done with great effort, but they have become the air you breathe, the atmosphere you live in, your very self.

Discipline is necessary.  Sometimes that means making the difficult choices.  Sometimes it means taking the time to place yourself somewhere, somehow so that God has the chance to transform you, be that in meditation, study, service, confession, celebration or any of the many disciplines.  When you really long for a lover you will do whatever it takes to get into their space, to be with them, to make yourself available to them, to know them, to be affected by them, to please them, to strengthen your relationship, just to make it work, even if it is difficult in many ways and sometimes you don’t feel like it in that moment.

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The saying that ‘virtue is easy’ is true ‘only to the extent that God’s gracious work has taken over our inner spirit and transformed the ingrained habit patterns of our lives.  Until that is accomplished, virtue is hard, very hard indeed.  We struggle to exhibit a loving and compassionate spirit, yet it is as if we are bringing something in from the outside.  Then bubbling up from the inner depths is the one thing we did not want, a biting and bitter spirit.  However, once we live and walk on the path of disciplined grace for a season, we will discover internal changes.  The spirit of compassion we once found so hard to exhibit is now easy.  In fact, to be full of bitterness would be the hard thing.  Divine love has slipped into our inner spirit and taken over our habit patterns.’

‘What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do?  Answer:  He is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age….What we need to grasp as being of the essence of his summons to Christian virtue, is the moral effort involved.  “Put to death…..”, “Put away….”, “Put on…” – these are the points of interest….The point of virtue is that eventually, as a person’s character becomes fully formed, such things may indeed begin to ‘come naturally’.  But the steps it takes to get to that point involve hard decisions, hard actions, choices that run counter to the expectations, aspirations, desires and instincts with which every human being comes equipped.’

‘ “If we live by the spirit, let’s line up with/walk by the spirit”….The point here is clear:  just because you “live in the spirit”, that doesn’t make following the spirit’s direction automatic.  You have to choose to do it.  And you can.’

– Tom Wright in ‘Virtue Reborn’ (or ‘After you’ve Been Saved’ in America.  Isn’t it strange how different cultures need and respond to different titles?  What does that say about them?)

 

These cover illustrations are really beautiful. There's something etheral and other-worldly about them, as if there's a incredible secret just through those windows or along that pathway.

 

‘The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.  They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.  They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.’

‘Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack.  We rely on our willpower and determination.  We pray against it, fight against it, set our will against it.  But the struggle is all in vain and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt or, worse still, so proud of our inner righteousness that ‘whitened sepulchres’ is a mild description of our condition……We have no intention of exploding with anger or parading a sticky arrogance, but when we are with people what we are comes out.  Though we may try with all our might to hide these things we are betrayed by our eyes, our tongue, our chins our hands, our whole body language.  Will power has no defence against the careless word, the unguarded moment.  The will has the same deficiency as the law – it can only deal with externals.  It is incapable of bringing about the necessary transformation of the inner spirit.  When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realisation:  inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received.  The needed change within us is God’s work not ours……The moment we grasp this breath-taking insight, we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction.  We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do…..we must wait for God to come and transform us….Strangely enough the answer is no……We do not need to be hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness.  God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.’

Richard Foster, in ‘The Celebration of Discipline’.

‘What is the good of pretending to be what you’re not?  Well, even on the human level you know, there are 2 kinds of pretending.  There is the bad kind where the pretence is there instead of the real thing, as when a man pretends to help you instead of really helping you.  But there is also the good kind where the pretence leads up to the real thing.  When you are not feeling particularly friendly but you know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as though you were a nicer person than you actually are.  And in a few minutes you will be feeling friendlier than you were.  Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already………  Put right out of your head the idea that these are only fancy ways of saying that Christians are to read what Christ said and try to carry it out….They mean something much more than this.  They mean that a real Person, Christ, here and now, in a very room where you are saying your prayers, is doing things to you.  It is not a question of a good man who died 2000 years ago.  It is a living man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self he has.  At first only for moments.  Then for longer periods.  Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a new kind of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in his power, joy, knowledge and eternity.’

– C.S Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’

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I wanted to post this picture to pose the question ‘what reaction does this create in you?’

It’s Jesus washing the feet of world leaders like Angela Merkel, Kofi Annan, Tony Blair and, yes, even Osama Bin Laden.

Just before Jesus washes the disciples’ feet in the bible, it says that Jesus knew the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God.  The next word is ‘therefore’.  Therefore, he knelt down and washed feet.  It’s like this is how he tries to illustrate what he does with all the power.

I guess the picture is really asking, ‘well, what do you think God’s actually like?  Is God really like this, exactly like this?’  How does this image make you feel?  Like it’s unfair, unjust, blasphemous?  As though it can’t be right and that Bin Laden ought to be punished rather than served?

The picture was actually designed as a poster to advertise a conference in the USA about God’s character.  It triggered such an outcry from Christians that the church that was going to host the event cancelled it and the organisation had to move the conference to a secular location (which, typically, had no problem with the poster!)

It’s true, it’s a hard hitting picture.  For me, I find it particularly difficult to imagine Hitler there and Jesus washing his feet after all that he did.  Even worse, what if Jesus was washing Hitler’s feet and Hitler wasn’t even sorry for what he’d done?!  And yet, here’s the thing – Jesus washed Judas’s feet, knowing Judas was about to betray him.  Then Jesus went and healed a guy who was coming at him with a sword.  And later still he went the whole hog and allowed his life to be taken in the most gruesome way for every person under the sun while they were still spitting at him and not at all sorry.  Now, if he did that last part for everyone then why would it be odd to think he might wash their feet for them?

Christians say they believe that Jesus was and is God, that he represents to us the image of God fully.  Paul writes that Jesus was the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact imprint of his very being and Jesus even said ‘if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the father’.  The trouble is, those same Christians then go on to say that apart from just being like Jesus, God is also like this and also like that, adding on to Jesus or taking away from him.  In particular, they feel an obligation to say that God is all the ‘omnis’, you know, omnipresent (all-present), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing) and possibly also that he never changes, is free of any happiness or sadness and is so ‘holy’ that justice (punishment) must at all costs be served and he can not look upon any evil.  It’s like these things are just obvious and go without saying.

But they’re not and they don’t.  Where did these ideas come from?  When you read the bible you find a God very different, one who cries and laughs and hurts and gets frustrated, and constantly gets his hands dirty amongst all the ugliness of the world.  Imagine how differently we’d think about God (and feel about him?) if we scrapped all our preconceptions and just started again by focusing solely on Jesus?  Imagine if he was our one and only guide for what God is like rather than our personal life experiences or Greek philosophy, which has shaped our culture and religion so deeply.  God might just start to look like the man on his knees in the picture.

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A few days ago, a friend of mine posted some quotes and comments on Facebook about Stephen Hawking’s latest views, expressed in his new book.  Those were the first rumblings for me that something was up in the Science-religion world (again!)  Apparently Hawking believes that it’s not necessary to invoke God in ‘lighting the blue touch paper’ to set off the Big Bang at the dawn of all creation.  He states that because there are such laws as the law of gravity, the universe could have spontaneously come into being.  Straight away the question that jumps to my mind is ‘where did the laws of gravity etc come from then?’ but I may just be a dunce and I haven’t read the book so I might be totally misunderstanding Hawking’s views!

A day or 2 after the facebook incident I received an e mail from CIS (Christians in Science) containing a link to an article in the Guardian, which was supposed to be a Christian Scientist’s response to Stephen Hawking’s writings (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/03/physics-science-theology-universe).  To be honest. I read it and didn’t think a lot of it as it was a bit simplistic and ‘heard-it-all-before-ish’!  But after I read it I made the mistake of looking at the hundreds of comments posted by readers (oh-oh), and these are what struck me.  Almost literally in fact.  I mean, I felt like I’d been physically beaten into a stupor after reading for 20 minutes.  Virtually every single comment was extremely aggressive, mocking, taunting, deliberately patronising and insulting to anyone who may have any kind of faith in a god.  It got me wondering, not in an irritated way but a genuinely thoughtful kind of way, why many people are so angry with the whole idea of God?  I mean, they could just ignore God-stuff and not really be bothered about it, especially if it’s having no effect on their life from day to day anyway.  But they don’t.  The idea of God, and that anyone else could believe in God, seems to make many people very furious.

Yes there were a fair few comments about fairies in the sky and wishful thinking, but opinions like that might bring on frustration at the very least, not raging anger.  But many people seemed to want to actively be rid of God rather than just allowing others to get on with him, which suggests that they see God as a bad thing, not as a good (or even a neutral) thing, hence the anger.  A lot of the comments hinted at the feeling that God is all about fear, about doing things right or wrong based on fear of punishment or hope of reward, about keeping us in line.  The lack of God, they suggested, would bestow on us all freedom, peace and unity.  Given many of the past and present effects of religion, not least the recent infuriatingly stupid threats by a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Quran on 9/11, I can’t deny that these people have a point.  More than that in fact, given my own experience of the personal fear of God and how that’s at times affected my life and choices negatively, I can deeply sympathise with the point (and I was raised in a very loving home and church with virtually no hell-fire talk!)

And yet the stories of Jesus are unasamedly, blatently called gospels, which means ‘good news’ and it’s obvious that those who first heard and received what Jesus brought considered it so overwhelmingly positive and joyous that they gave up everything for it.  They talk as if they had been set free rather than caught in a restrictive net, given an abundance of peace rather than a shadow of fear and an unconditional love for themselves and the whole world.  What are we missing that those early people saw?  Every now and again I catch a glimpse of what it’s really all about, something so good that I’m surprised that I or anyone else would wish angrily to be rid of it.  It has to do with an overwhelming, releasing, selfless, humble love lavished over us, taking root in the core of us and fortifying us in security and confidence so it can freely spill over from us to every part and person of creation.

Everyone bears responsibility for themselves and I reckon that a lot of Guardian readers should actually find out more about a faith before mocking their own mis-conceptions so simplistically.  But on the other hand, I can see where they get their impressions from and maybe if God-people could hold onto the truth for more than just brief glimpses, and then communicate and express it, perhaps they themselves would feel exuberantly liberated and Guardian readers would not feel such seething anger and contempt at the very mention of God.

For some (better!) responses to Hawking’s comments, see www.iscast.org/response_to_hawking (one day I’ll figure out how to make those things into a direct-click-link!!)

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I really enjoy the more or less annual summer road trip with my family from here to Switzerland.  I remember one year, stumbling bleary eyed into the Volvo at 4am, informing the neighbourhood we were off with repeated attempts at starting the engine culminating in a backfire, and then travelling along virtually empty motorways to the white cliffs of Dover.  Along the way a mist had formed at ground level and it was not yet late enough and warm enough for it to have evaporated away.  It settled in ditches and hollows and hovered above rivers with the sun rise piercing through it, looking, for all the world, like part of a cloud kingdom inhabited by goblins and imps.

But my most favourite part of the journey (bar lunch) is when we start winding through the Vosges Mountains of north eastern France.

The Vosges are in the red box!

As we do so, a great sense of calm and peace begins to descend on me.  Of course, the scenery is unquestionably beautiful, with some of the best views emerging from gaps in road-side forests around hair pin bends (“KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD MUM!!”)  The mountains are not particularly stark and intimidating like some, but instead tuck into each other and appear covered in a granddad’s green beard of trees.  Sometimes the distant landscape is so patch-quilted with gentle colours that I want to run my hands over its smooth softness.

Even the houses look carefully thought out and friendly with their pastel colours and decorative shutters.  It gives me the impression that people have taken care over their homes and land and therefore that somehow they care about life in general.

But maybe apart from all this, what I am really feeling is that I am very near the end of my journey and on the boarders of reaching Switzerland.  I’m nearly home.  The landscape appears more Swiss-like, the architecture and design more familiar and the towns often have such Swiss-German sounding names that I wonder how on earth a French person would even pronounce them!  Why should Switzerland feel like a home when in fact it is not my literal home at all?  Why don’t I get a similar feeling when returning to my physical home?

I think this is because I have so many virtually untainted happy childhood memories out in Switzerland.  Primarily these involve my whole family’s excitement at seeing loved ones again, knowing that they will be just as overjoyed to see us too, and particularly feeling safe and secure amongst this age-old family love and generosity, such that I and my cousins could just play together with no concerns about school or responsibility or even decisions about how to fill the next moment.  As the sun goes down over the Vosges Mountains and the shadows lengthen, I begin to feel as if I myself am being tucked safely in to them with heavy eyes after a long day’s play, just as they tuck into themselves and just as my aunts and grossmami have tucked me in many times before.

This feeling reminds me of a reminiscence by John Eldredge in his book ‘The Sacred Romance’.  He describes Sunday afternoons in summer as a child when he would often be at his grandfather’s ranch alongside many cousins, great aunts, friends and relatives.  As he sat on the step outside he could hear the elder family members talking and laughing and he felt very settled and content.  He goes on to say,

‘My sense of security grew from an awareness that all this had been going on before me, that though I was part of it I wasn’t responsible for it.  It didn’t depend on me.  You’ve heard that children care more that their parents love each other than that they love them, and that is the reason why.  It’s the assurance that there is something grand and good going on that doesn’t rest on your shoulders, something that doesn’t even culminate in you but rather invites you up into it.’

I don’t believe that even as aged adults we lose this desire for love, for security, for foundation and for a home that was there long before us. My 97 year old neighbour who died last year used to tell me that she still cried out for her mum at night.  At times I think that maybe this desire comes from the simple fact that we are conscious beings and therefore aware that one day we will die.  The unease that this engenders no doubt sometimes leads to a strong search for security and a sense of being looked after.  (Yes, I do have a mind that is (at the moment anyway) regularly tossed between the scientific and the spiritual, not that I think they always have to clash.  I sometimes wonder if anyone else out there knows how that feels!)

And yet the feeling that I get in the Vosges and that John Eldredge describes and that I’m sure most people experience at times is different than simple longing for self preservation.  There is something really lovely about hearing my mum, her mum and 2 sisters talking and laughing together, It’s as if, in their bond of love and shared experience, they’re holding together another bond from which many rope-spokes protrude, including mine.  They are their own little community but that community was going on long before I existed, it doesn’t depend on me but I can become part of it, rest in it, benefit from it and pass on the love and joy.

And now I know that God is a community, a bond of love between Father and Son which is the Spirit.  From all eternity this community has existed in great closeness and intimacy, and has continually poured out self-giving love from one member to another, almost like a dance.  Out of the joy of this love God created because love always desires to share, just as couples in love often want to extend their family and their love and so have children.  And the offer of this trinity God is that we can be taken up into their family community, into the bond and spirit of love as children if we wish to be, just as Jesus has always been the Son.  If the experiences we have in our own lives in our most joyful, peaceful moments are reflections of the kind of love that flows in the trinity then maybe that is the real home that we are ultimately looking for?

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What’s the difference between justice and ‘an eye for an eye’?  I mean, if you were to ask the average person on the street to explain what justice is, I’m guessing they would come up with something like ‘justice is when someone gets back exactly what they gave out.  If someone tortures another person, justice has only fully been served when the perpetrator is caused to suffer to the exact same degree (even if not in the exact same way)’.  That to me seems the current opinion or feeling about justice.  Basically, it’s fairness.  Maybe even karma.  Would you agree?

I’m pretty sure most Christians would agree with the above.  What bothers me is that many Christians seem to think and imply that there is something sacred about justice defined in this way, something holy and godly.  It is a standard that God can not let slip if he is to remain holy (whatever ‘holy’ truly means).

And yet for a long time, I’ve had a nauseating revulsion for this kind of justice.  Somewhere amongst the genocide in Rwanda, the conflict between Israel/Palestine and the constant suicide bombings elsewhere, I had enough.  Whilst I absolutely feel anger at some of the sickening things that happen in this world because of humans, I can not for the life of me see how re-enacting those sickening things makes the world a holier place.  It truly does just heap darkness on to piles of darkness.

Somewhere amongst my piles of books I remember reading the account of a man whose daughter was murdered.  He spent years trying to bring the murderer to ‘justice’.  Eventually the murderer was found, tried and sentenced to death.  A jubilant journalist asked the father if he was happy now, because justice had been done.  What a stupid question.  The father wearily responded, ‘there will never be justice until I have my daughter back’.  That, I think, is touching on real justice.  God’s justice.  To have things restored and put actually right, not karma-right.  Once again, I owe it to (Bishop) Tom Wright for painting this portrait of God’s real justice for me, straight out of the Old Testament prophets.

When Jesus comes along, he doesn’t seem to have much taste for our understanding of justice.  I’ve blogged on this before, but it seems a ridiculously important notion to me.  Just read Luke 6:27-36.  Jesus actually says that although previous instruction from God had consisted of ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’, he is now replacing this with a better (virtually opposite) way, in other words ‘do good to those who do bad to you’.  He even states that if you only do good to those who do good to you (i.e., be fair, give what you get), what good is that?  You can only be a child of the father if you are like him, and he is good to all irrespective of their behaviour.  It seems that our kind of justice is not so godly after all.  Mercy is the stamp of godliness and God’s kids.  Maybe justice isn’t even so holy (shock, gasp).  Maybe it’s far too obviously human; after all, fairness just makes sense doesn’t it?  How would anything work without it?  Living without the highest regard for fairness seems stupid to us and likely to lead to mayhem and (God forbid) door-mat-ness!

Recently, all this was made much more real to me by Timothy Keller’s little book, ‘The Prodigal God’.  I know many of us have heard the story of The Prodigal Son a million times and we love the way it tells of God’s open arms for us wayward wanderers.  But there’s so much more to this story, in particular if you feel, like me, more like the older brother, the brother who seems genuinely hard done by.  I feel his pain and frustration.  The whole situation for him seems so unfair.  Heck, it is unfair.  But fairness is not the point.  Fairness misses the point.  And so it seems so often with us Christians, even down to how we view the purpose, working and meaning of the cross.

So I want to go through what Timothy Keller has written and highlight the newer things which stood out to me.  I’m not going to tell the whole story but just try to pull out the points, so sorry if they’re disjointed.  Also, I’m no good at concise so I think this will have to span a couple of blogs – sorry!  I’ll keep trying to cut things down in future!

This story basically turns upside down what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, ‘sin’/doing bad things and being ‘saved’.  Most people throughout history seem to have thought that we have to either stay in God’s good books or earn our way back into them by doing enough good things for his satisfaction.  Otherwise there will eventually be trouble for us meted out by God’s hand.  This really is one perfectly good definition of religion.  But when ‘Christianity’ first came about in the world it was not known as a religion.  In fact it was the non-religion, with no temple, no priests and no sacrifices (standard religious must-haves).  But it wasn’t secularism either.

Significantly, the story was told to religious leaders of the day and to generally religious people, in response to their protesting question about why Jesus was genuinely hanging out with prostitutes, tax cheaters and other ‘sinners’.  Eating with them showed he totally accepted them.  He wasn’t tutting at them.  Therefore this story is actually trying to make a point to the religious far more than to the ‘sinners’.

The point is that there are 2 different ways to be alienated from God, and 2 different ways to seek acceptance from God and into the kingdom of God.  Both brothers ‘left home’.  The younger one did so literally and also by waving good bye to the family’s morality, love and way of life.  The older brother didn’t physically leave.  In fact he never disobeyed or slandered the family name and did everything he was asked, but the story condemns his moralistic lifestyle in the strongest terms!  He left home in a completely different way without having to set foot outside the estate.

When the younger brother left, he was essentially saying that he wanted his father’s things but not his father anymore. The relationship he had with his father had simply been a means to the end of enjoying his wealth.  Apparently, the word that has been translated as ‘property’ in the story actually means ‘life’, so the son had asked for his share of the father’s life (livelihood/estate?) and the father had split his ‘life’ in half and given it all away to his 2 sons.

Normally when someone rejects our love and walks away from us, we try to dampen our love and cut ourselves off from the person in an effort to stave off the pain and rejection.  But this father deliberately keeps his love alive, which in turn means he has to continue to suffer the pain.

When the younger son eventually returns home, there is no restitution to be made by him.  In fact, before the son has said much at all, the father has ordered the best robe to be put on him (the father’s own robe) as well as the signet ring.  These are signs that the son has been accepted back as a son, restored to his place in the family without any wait until debts have been paid off.  (I have a little diamond ring that I found in my great aunt’s house years after she died.  I was allowed to keep it and it now reminds me of the prodigal son’s ring symbolising the worth that is on him as a family member and child).  The robe covers all the son’s nakedness, rags and humiliation.  Not only does the father shower his love on the son before the son has shown any evidence of a changed life but even before he has shown any abject contrition.  Neither of these things merits the father’s favour.

So far so good.  But then we come to the older son, who refuses to come in and celebrate when the younger son returns.  Why won’t the older brother come in?

Well, he doesn’t think it’s ‘fair’ that his brother gets all this celebration and these expensive things spent on him when he has done so much wrong, whilst he himself has never put a foot wrong.  Actually, it really isn’t fair because (don’t forget) the younger brother has spent all his share of the family wealth, but now that he is an heir again he has another claim over what is left.  The older son’s share is being squeezed down and down.  Plus, the things that have just been lavished on the younger son belonged to the older son as the father had given it all away at the start of the story.  It’s exceedingly, totally unfair.  Where is the justice?

The trouble is, the older son is looking at the whole situation in terms of ‘what do I get out of this?  What’s in it for me?’ instead of in terms of family bonds and love.  In other words, he was also only interested in the father’s things and not the father himself, just like the younger son.  But it was much less obvious.  Both sons believed it would be the wealth, not the love, of the father that would make them happy and fulfilled.  While the younger son got what he wanted by ‘a bold power play, a flagrant defiance of community standards, a declaration of complete independence’ (Tim Keller), the elder tried to get what he wanted by working hard and doing everything he was told.  It was not out of love for his dad but out of the hope that he would receive his reward.  It’s back to motive again.  Under these terms, fairness and justice become very important.  ‘If I work hard, I deserve x, y and z’.  These days, x, y and z usually stands for heaven, but could also be health, wealth, happiness and the good life.  Sometimes, bizarrely, people who take this view realise that they may fall from the expected standards, but in that case they will be judged and rewarded based on how intense their sorrow and regret is.  Even their failures have to measure up.  (By the way, I’m mumbling this part because I know it extra-applies to me).  So both sons are in their own way alienated from their father and his love.  This is how they both left home.  It’s a dysfunctional family and the father always wanted a functional family.

It seems the older son is throwing away his father’s love and family not because of his badness (like the younger) but because of his goodness.  He is proud of what he has done and thinks he is therefore owed by right.

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All these excerpts are taken from ‘The Divine Conspiracy’ by Dallas Willard

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