SHORT AND SWEET – 12

Authority.

I have a love/hate relationship with this word. Instinctively I dislike it intensely. I misbehaved at school. Rather a lot. I couldn’t stand being told what to do. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I lived in my own world and authority figures cramped my style.

And yet, the collapse of authority in our society has been a catastrophe. Along with the loss of authority is the loss of deference. Everyone is open to abuse. Even the queen of England is taunted at times. It’s soul-destroying.

We so love democracy that we erroneously believe that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It isn’t. We may all have opinions but we should respect those who simply know more than we do. Sorry if you thought that simply having an opinion was sufficient to challenge the truly wise in our world.

So I resist authority while simultaneously acknowledging how important it is. It is good to submit to and learn from wise teachers. It is right that we see our own deficiencies, our own ignorance, so that we can grow. Authority figures help us do this.

And of course, most important of all, each day I bow before the Ultimate Authority Figure. I willingly and without resistance, seek to follow the only authority figure who completely warrants my worship and devotion.

Just need to control that ‘naughty boy’ inside, who doesn’t want to do what he’s told!

Have a great day.

SHORT AND SWEET – 5

You can’t buy God. That’s religion, isn’t it? Paying for God’s approval. Good behavior that earns God’s favour and love. Or let’s face it, a much baser assumption, you’ll get what you want. The prosperity gospel. Ugh.

But you can’t download God either.

This is a truth we struggle to cope with. Really? Stay with me.

Almost everything we do nowadays is done through the medium of the computer. All our shopping. Our social interaction. It’s the source of our news, our entertainment, our information, even our wisdom. It’s a tool so powerful, surely it should be possible to download the Creator himself.

But of course, that’s not possible. Downloading is initiated and controlled by the user. Genesis 3 reveals that we have an innate desire to be God, to be in control, the ultimate master of our own destinies. And we know how Genesis 3 ends.

You can’t download God because you can’t control him. He is unfathomable and like the wind, he blows who knows where. The desire to download God is like wishing you could herd cats, lasso the moon, make a woman love you.

You can’t. Because ultimately you’re not in control.

Time, instead, for a little faith.

Fight or Journey

What’s your life? Fight or Journey? No contest, right? It’s got to be Journey.

Ah-ah, no mixing the two. Enough of ‘well, what about a fight while I’m on my journey!’ The point about the metaphor is that you have to choose one. Just one. Fight or Journey.

First some reasons why we either reject or avoid the idea of ‘fight.’ First, of course, because it involves violence and most of us are not physically violent. We might engage in arguments – let’s call them fights – but for the most part, we avoid physical violence. Very understandable. I love Elton John’s Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting, but I’m not familiar with that kind of scene. Be thankful you don’t live in the Middle Ages, where your lifespan would probably have been determined by your physical ability with sword or bow.

Second, a fight has winners and losers and this is anathema to people who are committed to community. A community – the church – is surely about downplaying conflict and highlighting shared values. Furthermore, who wants to think of life in terms of what you’re against? Fighting is so . . . unpleasant.

With me so far? Hope so.

What’s the attraction of the journey? Well, for one, it has great antecedents. Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. The life of faith has to do with progress. We’re moving closer to God. Movement is surely a journey. We feel this inside instinctively. Not surprising, then, that ‘journey’ is a well-worn theme in art and culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy (Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) is surely the archetype of the Christian journey, second to none in its depiction of the soul’s progress towards God. Also in its favour is the fact that people who aren’t Christians often talk of ‘journey.’ Oprah, for example, is very much one for the journey.

So, which one should we favour? If we had to choose. Which one aligns most closely with Scripture?

It’s a close call, but I’m going to make a controversial case for Fight.

But first, Journey. What about Journey in the Old Testament? Yup, it’s there. From Abe to Zerubbabel, the Israelites are on the move. No question. There is almost no OT figure who doesn’t travel long distances. They may be seeking to stay still, but they don’t do it. They move and as they move, they learn and make mistakes and more importantly, we learn about God’s character in the process of their journeying.

New Testament. More movement. Jesus, the itinerant preacher. Luke emphasizes Christ’s decision to travel to Jerusalem (Luke 9.51) as a high point of his gospel. Indeed Luke-Acts uses ‘journey’ as its dominant motif. Not only this, but some of the most famous parables include journeys. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son both use journeys as metaphors into which spiritual truths are poured. You could also add The Parable of the Tenants, when the King leaves and sends his son back to his land.

Finally, St. Paul’s missionary journeys form an essential part of God’s message about mission. All believers are called to ‘go.’ We’re all to journey and while we go, we will experience the presence of the Spirit, who is with his journeying believers. A strong metaphor for our spiritual journey towards God, surely.

So why choose Fight?

First exhibit: The Old Testament. For reasons that reside deep inside the mind of God, he chose to form a nation and then set that nation on collision course with other nations. You can’t get away from this truth. The Israelites fought pretty much every nation with an –ite on the end of its name. It is true that they were sometimes condemned for such behaviour, but on dozens of occasions, they are commanded by God to go and slay their enemies. Yes, commanded. God’s use of warfare to achieve his ends must, of course, be placed within the context of his redemptive purposes, but he surely does not avoid warfare as a means to an end. Fighting, a violent physical activity, and yes, a symptom of our fallenness, is used by God as a tool in his hands to achieve his ends.

Second and most important exhibit: The gospels. The gospels present Christ in direct opposition to the Devil. His temptation in the desert, followed by his myriad healings and exorcisms bring him into conflict with his Opposition, the prince of the air. Furthermore, he is opposed constantly by people who want to kill him. In addition, he frames his teaching in terms of ‘with me or against me.’ Even in the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are you when you are persecuted ‘in my name.’ That’s Fight. With me or against me. You must pick a side. No fence-sitting permitted.

But the crucial one must be the highpoint of history, when the Son of God hung upon a cross, died and was then resurrected. This act is represented as a triumph. A victory over sin, death and Satan. It is Fight which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. A fight which God wins and into which he calls us.

It is, of course, tragic that European Christian leaders and Popes thought that capturing Jerusalem or fighting each other on behalf of God was a correct interpretation of Scripture. They were wrong. The Fight is internal – for purity – and yet it is also focused outwards.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.… 

I wonder if you have attended churches where the dominant idea was ‘fighting the devil.” I have. Every prayer meeting was a duel with the devil. Off we went, ‘taking the land,’ ‘declaring spiritual truths to each other and to spiritual forces.’ It can get tiring after a while. I’m bound to say, however, that when the sense of Fight is absent, a church can lose its confidence.

And it can lose its way.

Ask yourself as you look out over your congregation on a Sunday morning: ‘Do we look like an army? Do we live like people who are in a fight for the Kingdom of God, praying with fervour for the glory of God to be revealed and for his kingdom to come?

I love these lyrics from Our God Reigns by Delirious:

Yes he reigns, yes you reign, yes you reign,
For there is only one true God,
But we’ve lost the reins on this world,
Forgive us all, forgive us please,
As we fight for this broken world on our knees. 

As we fight for this broken world on our knees. What passion! What drive!

I favour Fight right now, because we need it more. Simple as that. I don’t wish to pit Fight against Journey. They are both valid, both important. But in our desperate world, we need more fight right now. We need to care more, sacrifice more, pray more, believe more.

We fight on our knees because we know that our God is already victorious. Believe it. May his Kingdom come. May his will be done! Amen.

 

 

 

 

Probably a Piece of Sky

PROBABLY A PIECE OF SKY – THE PARADOX OF WORTH

Have you ever completed a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle? You know, a panorama depicting a tranquil agricultural or maritime scene? There’s often a lot of sky, isn’t there? And almost every piece seems to be the same shape. Now imagine your jigsaw covers an entire football pitch. Every piece is a person’s life. Yours included. It’s an ocean scene, with the odd tall ship, the size of say, a ping pong ball, bobbing on the water. The vast majority is sky or sea. The pieces that make up the ships, with their colourful sails and elaborate rigging, are famous people: Leonardo, Winston, Adolf, Teresa, Paul and Caesar. You and I? We’re a piece of sky. Or sea.

The fact is, you’re not particularly special. You thought you were? Well, in reality, you’re not. You probably don’t stand out very much. You’re not the brightest or the prettiest. Nor are you the fattest or the slimmest or the fastest or the funniest. If you had never lived, your non-existence would produce no perceptible effect on the flow of human history. You are no Alexander the Great or Napoleon. You won’t ever lead a nation or paint a masterpiece. You won’t win a Grand Slam in any sport. You won’t cure a disease.

Oh, you think you’re special because God loves you? He does indeed love you very much, and he watches your every move.  Something he does for every one of the approximately 6.9 billion people on this planet. He hears your prayers and the prayers of your neighbour as well as the prayers of billions of other people from all over the world who call upon him. You’re no different to every other person on the earth who speaks to the Creator. You ask. He hears. Where’s the special in that?

When you’re gone, it’s highly unlikely that you will leave a lasting impact. Very few people do. Leonardo da Vinci, Watson and Crick, and Columbus are very rare exceptions. Extremely rare. Thomas Edison may never be forgotten, but he’s one of a very, very small group of people who can actually claim to have altered the course of human history. As for you, you will make millions of choices in your life and though you may consider them important, they will leave behind almost no effect on this world. If human history were a pond, the ripples you’re currently making are well nigh invisible.

Sometimes we console ourselves by telling ourselves that when we influence a child, we can change the course of history. Really? That’s a little grandiose, don’t you think? Entire nations have come and gone, each containing remarkable people raised by other gifted people – many more noteworthy and talented than you – yet they are forgotten. Ninth century Germany? Seventh century Mongolia? Twelfth century Spain. What is the lasting legacy of the thousands of villagers and townsfolk who lived and died in these countries? Regardless of the young lives you may have touched, the fact is, four generations from now, you and I will be little more than a line on a genealogical chart buried in the library or tucked away in a filing cabinet. Or worse. Lost in cyberspace. You are living and will continue to live a quiet life that has little effect beyond your immediate family and friends. Even if you have your 15 minutes of fame one day, by appearing on TV for some reason, you will simply join the millions who have experienced short term attention to drop back into anonymity afterwards. So, outstanding you are not.

But have you noticed something? When you’re working on a huge jigsaw – you know, one with lots of sky and sea – if a piece of sky or sea is missing, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Missing coloured pieces are easy to overlook, but sky and sea? They’re easy to spot. You will always notice a missing piece of sky.

So, you may never be famous, but you are completely unique. You are special beyond words. There is no one like you. No one. You possess a completely unique DNA structure and have done so since you were nothing more than a microscopic dot inside your mother. No one laughs like you, sings like you, cries like you. You are the only one who can run, draw, paint and dance the way you do. No one struts their stuff like you do. Your smile produces a unique effect on those whom you love. No one in your family is like you. Even if you’re an identical twin, your twin isn’t you, and that means you’re not identical at all. You’re unique. You’re the only person to possess the qualities you do. And God has no back up plan, just in case you fail. You are his first and last option for being you. There are no extra “you’s” just waiting for their chance. There is just you, living here, right now. You’re it. You produce a completely unique effect on those around you, something that no one else can produce. 6.9 billion other people currently living have no hope at all of replicating you or impacting the world the way you do.

Furthermore, Christ died for you. To save you. And if there were no other people on the planet, he would have died just for you. Almighty God, who formed the universe in a staggering burst of creative power, gave himself up and died for you. Does that make you special? Actually no. Sorry to disappoint. This is not what makes you special. It’s true that God responds to your most profound needs. For reconciliation. For restoration. But he doesn’t start with you. He starts . . . with himself.

It’s sometimes because we think we’re special that we think God expresses himself first and foremost in response to who we are.  He doesn’t. Whereas we are contingent beings, always responding to our environment and circumstances, God is contingent upon no one and no thing. When he acts, he does so out of the liberty of expressing his nature. And so he chooses to act – when he does act – in accordance with his nature and with one primary goal in focus: To demonstrate the wonders of his glory. He always, always starts with himself, because he is sufficient unto himself. He doesn’t need us at all.

We are gloriously superfluous to God. And that’s a good thing.

It is because we are not necessary that God’s decision to create us is all the more remarkable and all the more praiseworthy. God knew the cost and chose to pay it, because of the overflow of his love. We are the recipients of the extravagant love of God, brought into existence in order for our Creator to exhibit his character and share the wonders of his being. We’re special, then, for two reasons. First, because we’re made in the image of our Creator. We’re like our Father. And second, because we’re given a unique part to play in his big story. It’s the story he’s most interested in. The story is everything to him, because it’s his means of showing us who he is. And only human beings, who are made like him, can take leading roles. The rest of creation has a role, to be sure, but as bit parts compared to the central roles set apart for us. All of us. This is where our specialness is found.

It’s not found in being one of those very rare individuals who has left a lasting legacy, like Henry VIII or Galileo or Jane Austen. Neither is it based upon our appearance, our talents, our possessions, our birth or our connections. It has absolutely nothing to do with self-esteem, as though telling ourselves we’re special makes it so.  It’s based pure and simply upon the unique role we play in God’s story.

And no one can play your part. No one. No one can live your life except you. No one cares for Aunt Betty like you. No one listens to Cheryl at church who tells you about all her woes every Sunday. No one sits at the desk by the window next to Billy in class . . . except you. And no one shares their lunch with him the way you do. Except you. You make a difference in other people’s lives in a completely unique way that no one else can produce. Every choice you make, every move you make is significant, because it’s part of God’s story, and your part is essential to the whole. God chose you to be you, so that in being you, you would do a job that no one else can do. No one else has the relationships you do, and no one can love others the way you do, because no one else is you. God is counting on you to learn and grow and trust him, so that he can become increasingly known to those around you. He is in the process of changing you from being you to being “more you!” Becoming like God’s son is a glorious transformation of your soul into the person you are destined to become in relationship with your God.  Self-realization is the process not of becoming what you want to be, but the person God intends you to become. It starts and ends with the work of God.

When you become “more you,” within God’s story, when you learn to trust that God is changing you within a narrative he’s writing, then you’ll find contentment and peace. For whenever specialness is based on extraordinary human achievement – be it good or evil – it is divorced from its true source. Mother Teresa, Benjamin Franklin and Louis Pasteur aren’t special because we can see their achievements more easily than we see the achievements of others. They’re not special because they’re more gifted, brave or compassionate than others. They’re special for the same reason that we’re all special. They’re part of God’s big story. It’s true that their lives burn more brightly than most, but that doesn’t make them more important. It makes them . . . different. Every life that is lived, the good ones and the bad ones – and bad lives find no exoneration in this truth – form an essential component of the tapestry that makes up human history. There is no choice, no event that is unimportant. It is ALL important, for human lives are God’s means of expressing his character. He creates history, enters it, reveals himself within it, and wastes none of it. That so many human lives appear to be “wasted” is an illusion. We are far too close to the tapestry – indeed we are each one of its threads – to see the magnificent tableau he is creating. And yet it exists and grows day by day as he reveals ever more of himself to humankind. That such a profound truth remains largely a mystery to us should come as no surprise. What is more astonishing is that God should choose to include us in his plan at all, given that we’re rebellious creatures, unworthy of the calling he places on our lives.

So, where do you find your significance? Do you go searching for it in the faces of those you control, influence . . . and even love? Is your importance resting on the shoulders of other people? Or do you find yourself drowning in the multitudes who have gone before, aware that you’re nothing but a blip in the heartbeat of history. Whether you think too much of yourself or conversely, lose yourself in the enormity of time and space, perhaps it’s time for you to gain some perspective. Perhaps it’s time to start living in the paradoxes. So here they are:

You’re not that important. You’re not. You’re desperately important. Yes, you are. You’re just one of millions. You’re one . . . in a million. Everyone is special, which means no one is special. You’re average at most things. Yet you’re the only one who can be you. Which makes you unique.

Get used to it. Your story isn’t that important. It’s essential. To the big story. Critical, because no one else can live it, but not nearly as important as you might think. So you’re big and small. At the same time.

Because the big story, God’s story, is the only story that really counts. Not your story. His story. You’re in it. You play a vital role. But you’re not that important. He is. Your uniqueness stems only from his decision to include you in his story. It begins and ends with him. The Writer has given you a role, but he is the one who takes precedence, and you’ll only appreciate your importance, your significance when you come to see your role within the story He is writing, when you come to terms with the fact that you are probably a piece of sky. And that’s okay. For when you do, you’ll find freedom in the knowledge that significance comes not from standing out, but standing up. Playing your part. Doing your thing. Changing and growing, and helping the story along. In the right direction.

Being part of a picture with an awful lot of sky. And sea.

For the glory of the Writer.

© Richard Collins