The next value we have adopted is a church is that we are called to be people focused.
Like Jesus: caring for and loving people of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest; through our words and actions embodying and bringing the transforming love of God to our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.
Again, the crucial two words here are ‘Like Jesus’. As his followers we want to emulate his example and follow his teaching. There are countless examples in the gospels (well, okay, you could count them but I can’t be bothered and there are lots) of Jesus being people focused. In fact you could easily say that his coming into the world is because God is people focused.
In preparing for this Sunday’s sermon on this theme, I reflected that the two words ‘caring’ and ‘loving’ are indivisible. They aren’t so much two sides of the same coin as two ends of a kayak paddle. If you don’t have one you end up going around in circles.
Caring is often seen as a practical thing, whereas loving is a more emotional thing. But we care because we love. As I have mentioned before, this is not a mushy romantic love, or even the love you have for family members. It’s a dogged decision to seek the best for another person because of their innate value. That’s the sort of love God has for us. And we express it in practical ways as we care for others.
Caring for someone should involve us in praying for them, which is immensely practical, and in offering practical support and help.
But whom do we care for and love? To use another water-based image, consider ripples that are spreading outwards from dropping a stone into a pond.
At the start of the book of Acts Luke tells us of what Jesus said before he ascended into heaven. He told his friends that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. They were in Jerusalem (local). Which was in Judea (nearby). To the north was Samaria (further afield). And then there’s the rest of the world (the rest). Ripples flowing outwards from the immense splash they would make when the Spirit of God empowered them.
For us, our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth is: our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.
What’s yours? How might a people focused Jesus want you to care for and love people in those different arenas?
This is the first in a series of bloggages where I will have a look at our church’s newly adopted values, which you can read here.
So, my first question was whether it’s ‘oriented’ or ‘orientated’. We ‘orientate’ something, so my instinct is to add a ‘d’, but it seems that either is acceptable and ‘orientated’ may be something more common in UK than in other English-speaking countries. So there’s an extra ‘ta’, which is nice. Ta.
We explain what we mean by ‘God-orientated’ as: ‘Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.’
There’s a LOT to unpack here, isn’t there. The first thing is that our prime example of each value is Jesus of Nazareth. If we want to know what it looks like we can see it in him. He was, undoubtedly, prayerful. As well as recording the (pattern for) prayer he taught his followers to use, often in the Gospel narratives of his life we read of him heading off on his own to pray. And when he was facing his ultimate challenge, his impending arrest, trial and execution, he literally sweated blood in prayer.
That’s quite a challenge. In our own individual following of Jesus we know we could be more prayerful. And together as churches my experience is that church prayer meetings are often the least-well attended corporate gatherings. Of course, prayer happens in many other occasions and in many different groups, but I wonder whether we have reduced prayer to such an apparently mundane activity that it doesn’t energise or excite people to gather. Or by defining a meeting as a ‘prayer meeting’, have we reduced its scope from what God would like to do? I don’t have a definitive answer, just some ponderings.
Being God-orientated, or God-focused, means that we recognise that God wants to be involved in our whole life. The Hebrew word, Avodah, is apparently both the word for ‘work’ and ‘worship’, which to me gives an idea of the scope of this concept. Everything has the potential to be an act of worship to God if we want it to be and are willing to shape it accordingly. And then, together or on our own, we offer all we have to him and seek to include him in it all. It means that we attempt to be conscious of God through the day (which is something the Spirit helps us with) and intentionally do things with God in mind.
Listening to your Bible won’t usually provide you with much audio stimulation (aside from, perhaps, some rustling of paper). But we use the image of listening because we experience God ‘speaking’ through the Bible. When we read it, the same Spirit who inspired it to be written (and translated) applies the words to us in a real and living way. For Christians the Bible is not an instruction manual, it’s the prime means of communication between the Creator and the created. It’s both a written document and a living encounter. It shapes our thinking and actions and is God-inspired. But Christians disagree about some bits that are in there. How is that possible if we are all listening to the same Spirit who inspired the writing?
I came across this recently, and it ‘spoke’ to me in a new way:
Romans 14:1 – “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”
Paul, who wrote the letter to the church in Rome to help them out with a number of issues with which they were struggling, recognised that there are some aspects of faith about which it was possible to disagree! If you read on in the chapter you see that disputes existed over what could be eaten, and which days were holy. They were not primary issues, they were secondary issues over which Christians could disagree and on which the best thing that could be said is that we should be gracious and gentle with people who have a different view on those issues – not falling out with them. Not insisting that we are right and that they have to agree with us or be ostracised as heretics. The primary issues are about who Jesus is, what he taught and did – they are not up for discussion, but there can be (and perhaps always will be) ‘disputable matters’. I wonder how different church history (and present) would be if we paid more attention to this?
I was watching a Top of the Pops 1991 television programme* recently and they played Bryan Adams’s ballad Everything I do, I do it for you. The song spent 16 consecutive weeks at Number 1 in the UK chart, still the longest ever run. It’s a song I loved when it was released in 1991 and still love now.
As I listened to it again and watched the video, I wondered whether the lyrics inspired the subsequent power ballad sung by Meat Loaf: I would do anything for love… but I won’t do that (released in 1993).
(Spoiler alert: the ‘that’ refers to being unfaithful, but I can never quite work out how you would be unfaithful to someone because you love them so much that you would do anything for them).
Both songs suggest that true love motivates us to act selflessly for the benefit of the one we love. Meat Loaf’s song apparently puts limits on that (leading to the silly denouement) while Bryan Adams’s song climaxes with the promise that “I’d die for you…”
These are profound promises and reveal the power of love (cue another power ballad, sung by Jennifer Rush). Love is one of the most powerful motivating forces in human experience, isn’t it? It’s much longer lasting than guilt, more inspiring than a sense of duty and comes from a much deeper place than fear.
Of course as an ordained wearer of a dog collar (non-canine variety, and as a nonconformist, only on special occasions) you’d expect me to wax lyrical about God’s love for us, and quote John 3:16. And of course I wholeheartedly believe that this is true. But what I have observed is that it seems that Christians have sometimes portrayed God’s love as more like Meat Loaf than Bryan Adams.
What I mean is that sometimes the message churches have given about God’s love is that there are limits to it. There are some people who are excluded. I can already sense some of the Christians reading this drawing a deep breath ready to shout, “Surely not!” and others have fingers poised over their keyboards ready to denounce me, but before you do, please hear me out.
The first Church Meeting (Acts 15) was because some Christians were insisting that some people were excluded from the faith because they lacked the right heritage or did not follow the right rules (that meeting decided that this was wrong).
Some Christians actively endorsed (and profited from) the transatlantic slave trade and owning of slaves before abolition.
Some Christians actively supported ideologies that proclaimed that some people were subhuman (Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa).
Some Christians excluded women are from leadership or ministry in churches (but interestingly many have sent women as missionaries overseas to minister to others). Some still do.
Some Christians excluded people who are LGBT+ from their churches, or from full participation in them. Some still do.
And some who hold these views attack the integrity and validity of the faith of Christians who may be publicly more inclusive than they are (and I am bracing for impact myself after writing this).
You might say that some of these beliefs are not placing limits on God’s love but are examples of divine righteousness and purity. But it seems to me that God’s love always wins through – it’s God’s prime motivation because it’s God’s core essence. John 3:16 does not say that because God was righteous and pure that Jesus was sent… it was because God loved the world so much!
And you might say that this is not what people mean to say and that I am distorting what is actually being said. Perhaps. But my point is that regardless of what is being said, the message that is being received is that there is a limit on who God loves or how much he loves them.
I don’t deny that those who have held such views held them with conviction. However, in the gospels we see Jesus time and time again breaking through religious barriers to include in God’s Kingdom those whom people (who held those views with conviction) had excluded.
Were they placing limits on God’s love?
Did he need them to?
Did he want them to?
Does he want us to?
I offer Ephesians 3:14-21 as a prayerful response (with my added emphasis), remembering that this was written to a group of Christians:
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every familyin heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
I pray it especially for myself.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*For those who are too young (or live in a different part of the world) TOTP was the music chart show that was on the BBC every week from 1964 to 2006.
If you own a car you will know that one of the greatest enemies of the automotive conveyance is iron oxide… aka rust. It slowly, imperceptibly, gently corrodes the bodywork and chassis of a car and, if left untreated, eventually renders it unusable and fit only for the scrap heap.
And there is an emotion that I think is the human equivalent of rust. It can eat away at work relationships, friendships, families, whole communities and even a society as a whole if left untreated. What is this corrosive feeling?
It undermines, it erodes confidence, it justifies bullying and violence and it has the potential to destroy.
I struggled initially to consider hate as an emotion, but I guess it is in that it is a emerges from our circumstances, our interactions with others and our moods. In itself it is as intangible as the chemical oxidation process that creates rust – you can see the effects of it but you can’t actually see hate happening. You can see it in someone’s face or eyes, hear it in their voice, see it in their actions, but you can’t see it on its own. And hate does not live in isolation. It needs something to feed off in order to exist. It needs a scapegoat, it needs a victim, it needs to be able to blame another person or indeed a whole culture. We don’t say, “I hate” we say “I hate [you/them/it]”.
I am concerned that it feels like there is an increase in hate in our society. You only have to surf social media to see how easily people react with hate to someone with whom they disagree or who has a different perspective to them. You only have to listen to the rhetoric of some politicians to hear hate very close to (or on) the surface as they blame ‘others’ for the ills of society (and if not hateful words in themselves they can be designed to incite hate in others). You only have to look at government statistics to see it: the number of hate crimes recorded by the police having more than doubled since 2012/13 (from 42,255 to 103,379 offences)*.
So what can be done about it? Surely there is some sort of societal rust treatment that we can apply.
You might think it is tolerance. And that can help slow down the slithering spread of hate, but it does not stop it completely. You see tolerance has a couple of flaws. First of all it is a value rather than an emotion so it works at a different level: I can tolerate something while still hating it. Secondly tolerance has its limits – tolerance cannot cope with intolerance and becomes intolerant of it. Someone who holds a view that is counter to the views of others and is not willing to tolerate them is unacceptable in a tolerant society (unless they are the majority – at which point tolerance is trumped by democracy).
You are probably well ahead of me here, but I think the treatment for the corrosiveness of hate is love. Not romantic, mushy love. Not erotic, sexual love. Not even familial love. The sort of love I think can counter hate is what the Bible calls ‘agape’ (an ancient Greek word you don’t find in many other places in ancient literature). ‘Agape’ is a love that wants the best for others. It sees the positives above any negatives. It blesses, encourages, includes and affirms.
It’s made famous by 1 Corinthians 13 that you may well have heard at a wedding:
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The love described here is ‘agape’ love. And while it’s an emotion it’s also an intention, an attitude, a verb and a noun, and a lifestyle. If it is adopted in the form described above it has the ability to stop the spread of hate-rust, remove it and replace it with itself. Of course ‘agape’ also needs a subject, just as hate does. “I love” does not make sense but “I love [you/them/it]” does.
If it’s such a powerful weapon against hate why is it not employed more often? It’s the cost. True ‘agape’ costs a lot more than many people are willing to pay. It costs your self-centredness, it costs your win-at-all-costs ambition, it costs your pride and feelings of superiority, it can even cost your reputation and dignity. Why does it cost so much? Because you place others before yourself. You consider everyone else’s well-being and welfare before your own.
That sounds really costly doesn’t it? And it is if ‘agape’ is only expressed in pockets in a society. But imagine a society or organisation where everyone is motivated by ‘agape’! That sort of society does not have extremes of inequality, it does not have people on the margins, it does not have winners at the expense of losers. If everyone is seeking to live by ‘agape’ then it creates the sort of paradise that God intended the world to be. If you doubt me, read about God’s Jubilee plans in Leviticus 25 and you will see how that sort of society is God’s intention. (We get occasional glimpses of it (such as in the early church described in Acts 2) but it’s regrettably fleeting.
It’s what I believe church should be like. It doesn’t always happen because we are human and fallible, but it should be our ambition and intention that we become places where there is no place for hate because love wins. And if churches can come close to being communities of ‘agape’ then they will be close to being the free samples of Jesus that we are supposed to be because it’s exactly what God is like.
And it happens as we open ourselves up to being changed by God through prayer and reflection. It happens as we offer up our hate and ask him to treat it with ‘agape’. It happens when we reorder our lives and put him first, others second and ourselves third (recognising how amazing we will feel if everyone is doing the same).
Be blessed, be a blessing.
*It is suggested that this increase is due to improvements in crime reporting, but that seems to be a naive and unsubstantiated assumption. You can see my source here.
This bloggage carries a ‘harumph’ warning. It is fuelled by deep dissatisfaction about the direction of politics in the UK and other countries and a fear that we are bumbling our way to a crisis of global proportions. If you’re not up for that I suggest that you head for the fun and funny stuff section.
You have been warned.
Is it just me or are some politicians getting more extreme in order to gain popular support? In the UK and USA there are politicians who are seeking (or have) the highest office in the land and they are making statements that are designed to attract attention and appear to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’. Or am I being paranoid?
I consider myself to be ‘ordinary’ and I can conclusively say that these ‘populist politicians’ are not on my side when they make comments that fuel racism, stoke the fires of the irrational fear of the foreigner and pander to a right wing agenda. Part of making a nation great again seems to be about denigrating other nations so that a nation feels superior to it. In the USA the President regularly tweets in a critical manner about other people, nations and situations.
Another tactic that I see at work is the ability to make statements that have no basis in fact, or at best are a half-truth. And when that is pointed out the critics are the ones branded as peddling ‘fake news’! Or am I being paranoid?
Truth is the first casualty in this campaign of contradictory communication. In the UK the Referendum on whether to leave the EU had a headline figure that was emblazoned on a big red bus that said, “We give the EU £350million a week let’s fund our NHS instead.” Now it’s arguable that the amount of money that flows to the EU is less than that (some say £100million less each week!), but this ‘fact’ ignores the UK also receives a substantial rebate, it receives agricultural and other subsidies,research grants and it benefits from the free trade environment within the EU. It’s so disingenuous, but once the headline has been released into the wild it gains a notoriety and life of its own that no amount of ‘fact checking’ can remove from the public consciousness.
It was very clever and played to the self-centredness and indignation of those who would vote ‘Leave’, but it was a lie, and has subsequently been criticised as “a clear misuse of official statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority. Boris Johnson, one of the candidates to become our next Prime Minister, was the leading propagator of this lie. In the USA the President denies that climate change is a thing or that it has its roots in human activity – denying the truth of the vast majority of scientific research. His actions in leaving international climate change agreements could condemn the planet to serious damage!
If truth becomes defined by the loudest voice then it ceases to have value and politics has become a pantomime of populist personality propaganda. The politicians that seem to be the most popular are those with the most apparent flaws in character and frequently seem to put their foot in it when they open their mouth. I don’t believe that they are as daft as this appears. It’s portayed as them being a ‘character’ or laughed off, while truth lies trampled and unnoticed in the dirt. Or am I being paranoid?
It seems to me that much of this ‘populist’ politics is led by business and financial interests. The politicians at the head of these movements are wealthy, privileged and are not affected in any way by the impact of their actions. They can cope if markets crash because they have investments in many different places. They don’t need to queue for a foodbank, live without money when their benefits are stopped while an assessment takes place or make a choice about whether to buy food or clothes for their children. Yet their policies condemn more and more people to this existence while they celebrate tax cuts for the rich and get excited about how business will save the world.
These politicians are mostly isolated from the real world – ironically the ‘ordinary’ people from whom they are seeking to win support – and seek to blame someone else (immigrants, the EU, other countries) for the negative impact of their policies on the most vulnerable in their countries. Have we seen this sort of thing in the 20th Century after World War 1 when there was a rise of nationalistic fervour and the nation’s ills were blamed on others that began innocently enough and culminated in the most hideous acts in human history? Or am I being paranoid?
And how does the prevailing economic system make sense? Almost all of the governments in the world have borrowed money in order to carry out their policies. But that has to be paid back doesn’t it? And where will the wealth come from in order to pay it back? Taxation? Maybe, but there’s only so much money available from the taxpayers. So the rest is borrowed to repay the loans. But that has to be paid back doesn’t it? The debts rise inexorably while the ability to repay them diminishes. In the UK over the life of the Conservative Government we have been treated to ‘austerity’ which was designed in order to restore our country’s finances to a place where we lived within our means. Between 2010 and 2019 more than £30 billion in spending reductions have been made to things like welfare payments, housing subsidies, local council budgets, police services and social services. And the impact has been on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society while the wealthy have carried on relatively unaffected. And have nine years of austerity reduced our deficit? Well, the Office for National Statistics tells us that the deficit is decreasing. But the general government gross debt was £1,763.8 billion at the end of the financial year ending March 2018 and it’s still increasing! Am I being paranoid?
Our political system and the reporting of it is such that personality seems to be more important than substance and the media is keener on promoting their own preferences or prejudices in the way that they report the activities and words of their favourite puppets than in proclaiming truth. And people seem to have lost the ability to discern when they are being sold a lie and take on board what they are told in the ‘news’ as being the truth. In May 2019 Nigel Farage made his 33rd appearance on BBC Question Time – more than any other MP even though his party has no MPs! And the public are unwitting accomplices in this as they forget (or choose to ignore) that they have chosen the media outlet that they prefer, which reinforces their own preferences and prejudices, rather than listening to the voice that proclaims that the emperor has no clothes. Or am I being paranoid?
Don’t worry, the harumph is nearly over. You see I believe that there is a different way. Not all politicians are like this. I see many members of parliament (of all parties) whose reason for being MPs is to serve not to self-promote. I see many members of parliament whose voices are raised in protest at the lies. I want to thank them, encourage them, pray for them and (if I lived in their constituency) vote for them. It doesn’t have to be like this.
I am not advocating communism or socialism, certainly not in their current national incarnations that lead to oppressive regimes founded on a flawed atheistic view of life where there is the same inequality between those in power and the poor as there is in capitalist countries. I am advocating a new politics based on love and justice. What if society existed to benefit all, not just the rich, and there was a model in which justice and love were the main motivators for policies. What if we really did what Jesus encouraged and ‘love our neighbour’ and seek the best for everyone else? If everyone did that, what sort of society would we live in? Or am I being idealistic?
Recently, in order to make an online order up to the amount that qualified for free delivery, I bought a Rubik’s Cube. Technically it isn’t a Rubik’s Cube because it is not an official one, but you know what I mean.
When they first came out I was a teenager and I got hold of one. I learnt how to solve it and spent a lot of free time trying to solve it as quickly as possible. I was delighted when I managed to do it in 45 seconds on one occasion, and my average got down to about 1 minute. There are a few moves that you have to know, and of course you need to know where and when to do them. I was pleased with myself.
I don’t know that I could solve the cube as quickly as that now, but I am enjoying the challenge of solving it (each time is almost certainly different to the last because of the number of permutations of a cube). There is something satisfying about being able to transform a mixed up cube back to its solved state. However my pride at being able to solve the cube was put in perspective when I saw a video of people solving the cube in about 6 seconds! They do have special ‘speed’ cubes but even so it’s astonishing to witness. My method of solving the cube would not work at such speeds so it is clear that they have another approach.
A bit like my love of fountain pens (see the previous bloggage) part of my enjoyment is also tactile. There is something satisfying about the way that a Rubik’s cube moves. The noise it makes, the smooth clacking as the cubes are rotated and even the way that the cube fits into my hand and can be flicked by my fingers is soothing.
And there is a sense of fulfilment about reorganising the confusion and returning order. Each time I succeed is a victory for order over chaos (albeit a tiny and insignificant one). It’s also a victory for persistence over hopelessness and logic over muddle.
Life could be described as being like a Rubik’s cube in that it can be chaotic, disorganised and frustrating. It is also unlikely that we will come across exactly the same permutation of experiences in life, even if there are similarities. And there are some people who seem better at life than others (often they also try to sell us their advice).
But of course life is not like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not always possible to solve it. We can’t simply apply the right moves in the right order and at the right time to resolve difficulties, trauma and horrific events. Logic can’t always be applied. Sometimes the answer to life is that it sucks and it’s awful and we can’t change our circumstances.
What we need then is not someone on a video (or bloggage) telling us how to solve things, we need people who resolve to be with us. I know that some people avoid people who are going through rough times because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, or even wouldn’t know where to start with saying anything. The good news is that words aren’t necessary. They don’t need to give us advice, answers, resources or solutions. They just need to have the wisdom to know that being with us is enough. A hug can say more than a thousand words. A reassuring smile can be louder than a 1000W speaker system. An empathetic tear can be more effective than hundreds of advice videos in helping us to cope.
That, for me, is one of the amazing things about Jesus. One of the ways he is described is ‘God with us’. And he has promised that by his Spirit he remains with us and in us. He experiences our deepest depths and darkest darkness with us. The Bible even says that when we can’t articulate words the Spirit translates the groans within us into prayers in the throneroom of heaven!
And Jesus asks his followers to emulate him and we can be ‘God with us’ to others. Yes there may be practical things we can do to help, but starting by ‘being with’ is an astonishingly powerful thing. When, last year, I was trying to recover from my heart surgery the best moment of the day was when my wife and family and friends came to visit. I learnt what Sally’s footsteps sounded like in the corridor and that lifted my spirits. They didn’t need to say or do anything, simply them being there was wonderful for me. And knowing that those who could not physically be there with me were praying for me was also an immense encouragement. The McFlurries and other treats that people brought me helped, of course, but just knowing that I was not alone and that I was loved was the best medicine.
I am not going to be as glib or frivolous as to suggest that knowing that God is with us is enough and that simply being with someone is all that is needed. Of course we want terrible circumstances to be improved and there may be things we can do to help with that (like when my nurse sister spoke to the ward staff on my behalf when I was in excruciating pain). We want to believe that there is hope – that even though God is with us as we walk through the darkest valley, the valley has an end. But knowing that we are not alone, we have not been abandoned, is a good start.
Rene Descartes is thought to have nailed it when he said, “Je pense, donc je suis.” Or, in Latin: “Cogito ergo sum.” In English we translate it as: “I think, therefore I am.”
It’s really clever. I can prove I exist because I have consciousness and because I have consciousness I am able to prove I exist. It’s almost a circular argument along the lines of whether the chicken or the egg existed first, but the genius of Descartes is that he enables us to enter that circle by the way he phrased the statement.
There have been later developments of this…
“I’m pink, therefore I’m spam.”
“I stink, therefore I scram.”
“I drink, therefore a dram.”
“I sink, therefore I swam.”
(You may suspect that some of these are not so much ‘later developments’ as ‘hot off the press poor quality puns’, and you’d be right).
But while Monsieur Descartes’ ability to prove existence is quite incroyable it does seem a little bit, erm, limiting if all we do is exist. I wonder whether beyond ‘I think, therefore I am’ we ought to consider something like: “I love, therefore I live.”
Existence is all very well, but it’s a bit lonely on our own. To be in relationship with others is far more exhilarating and the pinnacle of a relationship is to love and be loved. Not a mushy romantic love; nor a passionate sexual love; not even a familial kinship love. But he sort of self-giving love that wants the best for others and is not based on feelings that can change or on what the other person has done for us but on an a sense of the innate value of others. In loving that way we become truly alive.
And because love does not exist without someone to love it demands relationships so we go beyond existence on our own and find community, fellowship, friendship, companionship, belonging and the joy of being known.
If that sounds good, then don’t be surprised because it’s what Jesus was saying nearly 2000 years ago! It’s the way that God loves us and enables us to love others. It’s the way to experience life in all its fullness. It’s what is described in 1 Corinthians 13.
The art is to put it into practice.
Be blessed, be a blessing
By the way, if you don’t understand the title, x is tens… existence
One of the greatest privileges in life is to be with people in the moments when their world feels like it is falling apart. Simply by you being present reassures people that they are still loved despite what has happened. They don’t need many words or answers to questions. They don’t need flowers or cards. They don’t need much beyond being loved (and perhaps practical things like a cuppa). All of us could do that couldn’t we?
This is a slightly edited version of my ‘thought for the week’ yesterday – sent to the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…
11/9/2018 is a landmark day (or 9/11/2018 if you are American). (Cue trumpet fanfare, ticker-tape parade and 21 gun salute… or maybe not). That day was the last day of my cardiac rehabilitation process. While I am still not 100% back to where I was before the surgery and still have one or two further appointments, I reckon I am about 95% and today is a significant milestone along the way that demonstrates the progress that has been made since my surgery back in February. I am now back at work full time.
Immense thanks go to my amazing wife, Sally, who has been a wonderful support and encourager throughout the time. Immense thanks go to the surgical, medical and rehab teams at the Essex Cardio-Thoracic Centre in Basildon who have looked after me incredibly. And immense thanks go to you and your churches for the many prayers that have been offered on my behalf – I have been acutely conscious of them and am sure that part of my progress is attributable to them. But most of all immense thanks go to my Lord who has been with me from start to finish along the difficult journey, and of course continues to do so. And I have discovered a new way in which he is with us.
You may recall that in my recent Thoughts for the Week (not published here) I have been reflecting on Psalm 40. In verse 1 David wrote: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” In my first reflection on this psalm I noted how it must have felt to David to have God give him his attention. But since then I have done some more research on the Psalm and have discovered that our English translation is somewhat inadequate, albeit literally correct. The sense in the original Hebrew language is not of God turning to face David as he was in the slimy pit so much as ‘he crouched down to me and listened to me crying’. The image is of a loving parent who sees their child in tears and gets down on the floor to be with them in their sorrow so that they know that they are not alone. There’s no suggestion of wiping away tears or words of comfort, or attempting to explain what’s going on, just a God who crouches down with us and listens to our crying. That’s an astonishing thing for David to write about God when the gods of other nations were warlike and needing to be invoked or remote and needing to be appeased. I love it, and I have experienced it.
9/11 is the anniversary of the day when terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and another crashed as the passengers sought to prevent greater tragedy. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.
There are many in today’s world who are victims of natural disasters, human violence and tragic circumstances. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.
I am conscious that some of you and some of your church are going through deep, dark valleys at the moment. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.
May we all experience and bring his reassuring presence in our life and ministry.
A long time ago I was at a conference and started chatting with someone I hadn’t met before. We asked each other about our interests and I let slip that I support Ipswich Town Football Club. Without missing a beat my companion said, “Oh, you must be used to disappointment.”
And yes… there have been many disappointments in the 40 years since I started supporting them. (There have been a few highs too). Supporting a club like Ipswich is nothing like supporting a team like Arsenal or Manchester United. Last year that had what was termed a bad season. I think most Ipswich Town fans would love a bad season like that!
This morning I am pondering afresh that sentence from my companion at that conference: ‘You must be used to disappointment.’ I don’t know if we ever get used to disappointment. By definition it is a sense of sadness or regret when what we were hoping for or expecting didn’t happen. If we are not expecting it to happen we won’t be disappointed. I think that’s how pessimism starts. But getting used to disappointment is not a semantic exercise, it’s a painful experience.
Disappointment is a melancholy word. In it we hear the faint echoes of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. It leaves a taste of bitter traces of emptiness and maybe even hurt. We experience the pit-of-the-stomach falling emotions and distressed hopefulness.
Each disappointment that we experience costs us: we pay a penalty charge of sorrow; a little bit of our optimism is taxed; and time and energy that we have invested feels wasted. Sometimes we carry deep disappointment with us as a wound in our soul that can be opened up afresh when we least expect it.
So what can we do? Very few of us are hyper-optimists who can see a silver lining in every cloud. (And it seems to me that being such a person must be emotionally draining as well – being so upbeat must be difficult). I think this is where community helps. We are created to be social beings. We have the ability to communicate with others.
Simply being with someone can communicate care and concern.
Hugs communicate that they are not alone.
Listening well can be a real blessing to someone who simply needs to unload how they are feeling.
Reflecting back to someone what they have said can help them to interpret and own what they are feeling.
And if we can’t be present physically don’t underestimate the value of a card, email, text message, phone call…
These are just a few examples of how we can communicate what someone really needs at times of disappointment: unconditional love. Whatever has happened has not changed the fact that we love them. It’s what God offers us when we feel disappointed in ourselves.
I don’t think we ever get used to disappointment, but we can be used to help other people cope with it.