[Repost] Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

[This is a repost of an earlier blog post.  It seemed appropriate to Good Friday]

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.

Kum Ba Yah

Syria. Egypt. Afghanistan. Russia. The illegitimate so-called Islamic State. North Korea. European nationalism and neofascism. Resurgent American militarism. It’s a dangerous world out there, and full of violence and potential violence.

The song “Kum Ba Yah” has come down to us as the epitome of head-in-the-sand hippie flower power, a sort of desperate “give peace a chance” denial of reality while all around the bullets are flying. The modern equivalent of “‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace”. A milquetoast refusal to confront evil combined with an unrealistic appraisal of the likelihood of everyone putting down their guns and just being nice to one another. Hello; this is the real world calling.

In our modern cynical age it’s fallen distinctly out of favour, but it actually started life as a Christian song.

“Kum ba yah”, as I was told in ye olden days when we occasionally sang it at school, is some kind of African dialect for “come by here”; the song is a prayer for God to show up and do something. Someone’s crying, Lord. We need You.

There’s injustice happening. People with needs unmet. Prayers apparently going unanswered. Danger, famine, nakedness, sword. We need You, God; You’re our only hope.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Things are good right now, but we still need You. But for Your grace it all falls apart.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah.

And really, it sounds hippie and unrealistic, but what’s actually wrong with people and nations being nice to one another for a change? Couldn’t we all do with a bit more niceness in the world?

People that don’t just try to get whatever they can for themselves. Institutions that don’t act like the problem you’ve gone to them about is a real pain in the arse? Nations that act based on justice, respecting their neighbours and trying for a win-win solution to international problems. People the same, with their interpersonal problems.

Niceness may be underrated as a rallying-cry, but we all appreciate it when we encounter it.

Kindness. Peace. Patience with our weaknesses and failures. Not bringing the hammer down for something we may not have been fully able to help. Love, in the broad sense, not necessarily sexual or romantic.

And now this is looking a little more like the fruit of the Spirit and less like a Sixties hippie commune. Maybe – no, probably – that’s why the hippie movement failed; trying to gain peace, love and understanding by human effort rather than the Spirit of God; but you can’t deny that the impulse is a good one. Give peace a chance. Put down the sword and the gun and the tendency towards violence and oppression. Let’s all just try to get along.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah. We can’t do it without Your help. What we’re longing for in our dealings is the evidence that You’ve been at work. We confess that we’ve been infected enough with the cynicism of the age that we don’t hold out much hope for peace and justice in international affairs, but we believe You are the King of kings. You overrule the nations. The movers and shakers aren’t actually in control of world events; You are. You’re the Prince of Peace; extend Your influence not just in our lives but among the nations.

Kum ba yah.

Palm Sunday has just come and gone; the annual celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the incongruous mount of a donkey. It was a fulfilment of Scriptural prophecy of the Messiah, but more than that: the donkey symbolically stood for humility and peace, counterpointing and opposing the martial pride of a stallion or chariot. Your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey. The world was pretty messed-up if you were a Jew back then, just as it seems to all of us now. Evil pagans oppressing God’s people. Where are the Godly leaders? Who can make our nation great again? It wasn’t for no reason that the people shouted out “Hosanna!”

But the King being lauded isn’t a proud warrior lord, a rebel who will overthrow the evil government oppressing us and return everything back to the way it was in the good old days; He’s a Prince of Peace, humble and gentle, who will give His life to save us from the evil within us and return us to how we were meant to be in the very beginning.

Hosanna. Save us. Kum ba yah. Come, Lord.

We need You. You’re our only hope.

Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

And with those six words, I’m probably starting a riot among my friends on social media. Especially the Americans.

Yes, 9/11 happened. Yes, the perpetrators called themselves Muslims. Yes, a large number of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations of the world actively persecute their national Christians in one form or another. Yes, Iran’s leadership consider America (and by extension the West in general) to be their enemies. Yes, all of that.

Even so, Christians are required to love Muslims. What part of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” did you think was optional? Did you think the parable of the Good Samaritan was told the way it was because Samaritans were really great people who loved the Jews?

Unlike most of the people spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric into my Facebook news feed, I’ve actually lived overseas in a Muslim-majority nation. I’ve been in a mosque. I’ve had Muslim friends. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert as such, but I can talk about what I’ve seen and experienced.

The country in question was in no way without its problems, but the people were almost without exception courteous and hospitable to this Western Christian in their midst. Hospitable to a fault, actually; the local tradition basically considered guests to be an expression of Divine trust and favour. You can be trusted to take care of guests properly.

I was there when 9/11 happened. I saw it through television reports in a majority-Muslim country.

No-one celebrated. The news coverage wasn’t “see how the Great Satan has fallen”; it was shocked disbelief that anyone could be evil enough to do such a thing.

Over the next couple of months, the streets around the US embassy filled with flowers for blocks in every direction.

My American wife (only she wasn’t yet my wife at the time) only had to let it out that she was an American for the sympathy to pour out.

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

-We hope you find the evil people who did this.

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

They weren’t doing this because someone told them to. They weren’t doing it because they were rebelling against some kind of Islamic tyranny. They were doing it because they were decent human beings and it’s what you do.

I’ve seen the clip that always gets played when people want to tell me the Muslim world was celebrating at 9/11. And I mean “the clip”; I’ve only seen just the one. It was somewhere in the Middle East, not where I was. And what I noticed about the clip was not that people were celebrating and dancing, but how few in number they seemed to be and who exactly it was that was celebrating.

What I saw was a group of no more than 50, and probably around 20, composed entirely of little old ladies and children. People who, not to put too fine a point on it, probably didn’t know any better. And only ever that one clip, which has somehow entered the American public consciousness as “the Muslim world were all partying in the streets”.

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

Every time I make a comment about Christians needing to show love and respect to Muslims, I get a barrage of comments telling me how “they hate us”, “they want to kill us”, “they hate Israel”, “you hate your wife and daughters”, etc. I’ve seen people posting ignorant memes that “Muslims have contributed nothing at all to world civilisation”.

Enough.

Yes, there are Muslim fanatics that hate America and/or Christians. Tell me there aren’t Americans and Christians that hate them. And we have far less excuse, because their religion does not command them to love their enemies. Ours does. In my experience, most of them just want to get on with their lives and don’t hate Americans at all.

But they can read, and they can see, and they can hear. They hear our claims that Christians love everyone, and they can see America emplacing entry bans on people from Muslim countries. They’ve also heard our claims that “America is a Christian country”, which reinforce their pre-existing beliefs shaped by the fact that places like Iran and Saudi Arabia really are Muslim countries in terms of the national and legal structures of the state being Muslim. That’s the way they tend to interpret our claims of Christian countryhood; they think that there’s no difference between the actions of the USA as a nation and the actions of the Christian church.

Many of them get frustrated by the church’s apparent blinkered support for the State of Israel. This is a thorny issue replete with biases and half-truths and unclarity on all sides including mine, and I don’t want to say a lot about it right here, but the fact is that many Muslims think we believe that the State of Israel can do no wrong, ever.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Note that I didn’t say that was an accurate belief, just that that’s what they think.

I’m not even going to dignify “you hate your wife and daughters” with a proper response. It’s a deliberately contrary-minded, ignorant comment that equates loving Muslims with support for the fanatics’ agenda. I’m a Christian and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ, but that does not mean I support the perverted agenda of every cultist who’s ever claimed to represent the True Church.

And “Muslims have contributed nothing to world civilisation” is, if possible, even more ignorant. In the period of the Crusades, the Muslim world were far more advanced than the Christian nations, particularly in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. While the Christians were struggling to do simple arithmetic using the unwieldy Roman numerals, the Arabs had a place-notation that we still use today in modified form. It’s not for no reason that we call them “Arabic numerals”. Muslim astronomers like Avicenna (ibn Sina, to use the proper form of his name) made observations of the heavens that wouldn’t be equalled in Europe for hundreds of years. And well into the 1600s every European court had its Arab or Moorish (ie black North African Muslim) physician, because the Christians were dangerous incompetents more interested in bleeding you than healing you. Most of what Western Christian and post-Christian scientists have discovered about science builds off of work done by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages.

But even if they were just as ignorant and stupid as we are, still we would be required to love them.

It is, after all, one of the commands of Christ. How can we claim to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus if we obey everything except the bits we don’t like? If we love only those who love us, how are we better than demon-worshipping pagans?

We’re commanded to love our enemies. There’s no listed exception clause that says “but if they hate your country then you don’t have to”. There’s no exemption for people that don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; in fact, the focus is specifically on those who do not believe. The ones who were persecuting and spitefully abusing when Jesus said those words were pagan Romans, many of whom thought the Jews were too troublesome to live, and the Christian sect of Judaism was even worse.

If we are going to call ourselves His followers, we do not get to pick and choose who we love.

We don’t have to support the agenda of the radicals. We don’t have to decide that they’re right in what they believe. But we do have to love them.

This begins with being respectful. Being friendly. Taking the time to get to know the alien and stranger in our midst, about whom even the Old Testament Law was quite firm: “do not despise an alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt”. Find out what help they need. Act like a good neighbour. It’s not rocket science.

They aren’t robotic avatars of The Islamic Threat, or whatever you think is driving them. They’re just people, like you and me. They have kids that they want a better life for, they have sports fandoms and hobby interests, they mistrust the secularising influences around them just like many Christians do. God made Selim just like He made Simon, in His image and likeness. God loves Aisha just as He loves Alice. Muslims really aren’t that different from you and I. Just people whom God loves and wants to come to a better and deeper knowledge of Him, made in His image just like me.

And Jesus commands us to love them. Hadn’t we better be about it?

“Grant To Us Now Those Spiritual Graces…”

These are the words of our current church’s communion liturgy: “grant to us now those spiritual graces that we may live a godly, righteous and thoughtful life…”. Every communion Sunday I’m struck with what a distinctive wording this is, and every communion Sunday I consider once again what an interesting trio of characteristics we are asking to be made manifest in our lives.

Godly and righteous are more or less expected, of course. This is a Christian church with a mainline, Evangelical theology. Or what I take for one, anyway; I’m less than fully comfortable with the political connotations of Evangelicalism as she is practiced in the United States right now. But this isn’t about US evangelicalism, it’s about “godly, righteous and thoughtful”.

It’s that “thoughtful” that always strikes me as so unusual. You might expect “a godly, righteous and Christlike life” or “a godly, righteous and holy life” or “a godly, righteous and powerful life” or even “a godly, righteous and meaningful life”, depending on your personal theological expectations, but no; it’s “godly, righteous and thoughtful”.

The implications are interesting. “Godly” and “righteous” cover a lot of the same ground; they’re practically synonyms, in fact. So if you’re going to make it a nice, aesthetically pleasing triad, something like “Christlike” or “holy”, another near-synonym, would round out the list well. But we have “thoughtful”, which is so startlingly different that it makes me wonder what the perceived difference between godliness and righteousness is.

Godliness isn’t really a word that’s very much in my personal vocabulary. I mean, it’s not a word I actually use.

Part of this is that I find it really difficult to actually pin down: righteousness has a fairly well-defined theological meaning, involved with concepts like justification and the character of God. It includes our relationship with God being properly functional and unmarred by sin – being “right with God” through faith – and doing what is right – “living out our faith” in actions that back up the trust we claim to have in God.

“Godliness” is a lot more nebulous, but if I had to define it as distinct from righteousness I’d probably say something about growing in family resemblance to the Father of our spirits. Being like God in our attitudes and reactions, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

However I’d also say its opposite would be “godlessness”, which my Bible uses as the pithy overarching characteristic of the life of Esau, and the opposite of how I just defined godliness isn’t really the summary statement I’d make about Esau. Rash, wilfully stupid to an insane degree, having no concept of eternal values, yes, but not really failing to love his neighbour as himself or to grow like God except as incidentals.

It’s probably equally possible that I’ve misunderstood Esau or that there’s more to the idea of godliness than meets the eye, but it still seems that godliness and righteousness go together. If you are living a godly life, you cannot help but be righteous: if you are living a righteous life, it will be godly.

It may be that “righteous” is meant more in the legal sense of the Divine courtroom and the theology of justification while “godly” refers more to the process of being remade into the Divine image, but either way, they seem to go together.

And then we come to “thoughtful”.

It’s an especially interesting final component to the triad, because one of my major problems with too much of US public Christianity is the unbearable shallowness and lack of apparent thought involved.

I’ve known people who worried that their offspring were “too smart” and that their intellectual development was threatening to the development of faith.

I’ve seen the sort of drivel we sell ourselves.

I’ve listened to Christian radio.

And so when we pray that we may live a thoughtful life, a large part of me says “yes, please!”. Please let us be people who aren’t afraid to think, who can ask the difficult, squirrelly questions that don’t have easy answers. Please let us be people of enough confidence in the truth to be able to re-examine old certainties in the face of new information. Please let us stop seeming to be afraid of science and knowledge.

But somehow I doubt this is what’s meant. Most people probably aren’t going to jump straight to reason and intellect from the word “thoughtful”. After all, “thoughtful” is the descriptor we put on someone who’s attentive, who is good at putting themselves in others’ shoes and doing something to bring happiness to others. Considerate. Taking others’ feelings into account.

Funnily enough, this is also something the US Evangelical church at large often seems to be dreadful at. Don’t believe me? Go on Facebook and make a comment about how Christ commands us to love Muslims where US Evangelical-type Christians can hear you. You’d be amazed at the vitriol that such an ought-to-be-self-evident statement can provoke.

I’ll also admit that this sense of thoughtful is something I fall down on. It’s not that I refuse to help others, or that I deliberately try to offend; it’s that I just don’t think. I tend to need it announced with trumpets that someone else has a need I might be able to meet, and I can occasionally be hurtful just because I didn’t stop to consider how it might make another feel. Showing mercy doesn’t really show up as one of mine on any spiritual gift inventory, but that’s no excuse, just like the fact that I’m not an evangelist does not exempt me from fulfilling the Great Commission, or the fact that I’m not endowed with gifts of healing that I know about doesn’t mean I can’t ask God to bring miraculous healing to a sick person. Who gives the gifts, anyway? Thoughtfulness in that sense is definitely something I need more grace for.

I don’t know which, if either, of these our liturgical formula means when it invites us to pray that we might live a thoughtful life. Either way, “thoughtful” seems a timely and needful thing to pray for grace to achieve. After all, how many people would give that description if you asked them what Christians are like?

Liturgical Musings

My church upbringing was in a denomination that didn’t have a lot of time for formal liturgy. I don’t mean that our worship services were completely spontaneous and unstructured; there was a formula or pattern to these things and we followed it. You might call that an informal liturgy, I suppose, but there wasn’t a lot of formulaic responsive recitation or reading. “Lift up your hearts” “We lift them up to the Lord” or “May the peace of Christ be with you” “And with your spirit also” didn’t have a place in our services.

The closest thing we had to a liturgical formula was that the pastor would frame our participation in the Communion with I Corinthians 11:23-26:  Paul’s explanation of what’s supposed to happen in the living ritual. And that was his personal practice, not a denominational custom or mandated liturgy. Oh, and we’d usually end our services by saying “the Grace” to one another: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.”

With this background, naturally as a teen I was a little suspicious of formal liturgies. How can worship be genuine, it was reasoned, if you’re just going through the motions of reading or reciting the same old stuff every week?  How does that really touch wherever you are right now?

As an adult with a vastly broader church experience, I look at this reasoning and see a lot of missing the point. I’ve seen some of the drivel that some people unfortunately come up with when left to their own devices. It’s like people writing their own wedding vows: some people do a good job and create something both personal and meaningful, others shouldn’t have been let near the process without close editorial supervision. You never know what you’re going to get.

Beside that, it’s rather arrogant to assume that anyone worshipping with the aid of a formal liturgy is only going through the motions. And by implication, all “free” and “spontaneous” worship is always pure and genuine.

Real worship isn’t what your mouth is doing so much as what your heart is doing. I can remember plenty of completely spontaneous “times of worship” in which I was just going through the motions, pursuing an emotional high and not the Lord. In certain circles you look really spiritual if you’re willing to dance up and down the aisles – and I’ve done that from sincere and insincere motives – but there’s no place for any feelings of superiority over those whom God meets in quietness and stillness and the reading of time-honoured words.

So I’ve made my peace with liturgy as an adult, more or less. I think one of the main driving forces in my personal reconciliation with formal liturgy was spending several years in Charismatic-type churches and watching them botch Christmas by seemingly failing to acknowledge Our Lord’s birth in worship. When you fetishise not using hymns, apparently that means you can’t sing Christmas carols either, not even the ones replete with truth like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. And so Jesus’ birthday gets sidelined and ignored by His own church.

Sorry. Pet peeve of mine. Anyway, what most liturgical-type churches do really well is the church calendar. It’s an entirely different mode and model of a worship service, in which any one service is conceived as being part of a larger, ongoing flow of service through the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Easter, Pentecost and right around to the end of what’s called “Ordinary Time” and the start of the next cycle. The focus seems more long-term and ongoing than immediate and “today”.

Ideally, we should be able to find a way to have both. There’s a place for spontaneous worship that breaks out of stale patterns and finds God at work in ways that no-one expected. The Holy Spirit doesn’t tend to like it when our formulas become so all-encompassing that He doesn’t have any room to do something different, but sometimes even our “free and spontaneous worship” just becomes another formulaic straitjacket for Him. Dancing before the Lord can be a wonderful expression of liberated devotion to hHim, or it can be someone looking like a prat because they think on some level that God can only really meet them in a place of emotional high.

These days, I approach a liturgical formula like “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” “It is right for us to give thanks and praise” and I think “you know what? It is right”. And that’s a truth you don’t often encounter outside of a liturgical-type worship service. Much of the formal liturgy is written the way it is because it expresses certain truths that have withstood the test of centuries.

Oh, some of it’s dross. Often the bits that have been generated by people meddling with the originals in the name of “updating” them, in my experience. And unless you’re careful to maintain a worshipful heart, just mouthing words will do you no good at all. But that’s true whatever our corporate worship services look like.

 

Dance of the Woolly Mammoths

My church, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, sings a lot of what I believe are called “camp meeting songs”. That’s the label I’ve most often heard put on the genre of American worship music that I mean: though there are outliers as late as the beginning of World War Two (like “Victory in Jesus”), most of the ones I’m talking about seem to belong to the half-century or so between the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s and the start of World War One in 1914. If that’s not the right label, I’d love to know what is.

My wife grew up singing these songs, and they are some of her favourite hymns. I didn’t, and I mostly can’t stand them.

The church where we worship is like her in that regard, not like me; we were both fed up to the point of disgusted with contemporary “intimate” worship and “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs when we started attending, and both wanted some traditional hymns.

Alas, our ideas of what constitutes “traditional hymns” diverges somewhat, and though we both take in things like “And Can It Be” and “Blessed Assurance” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “How Great Thou Art”, my definition of traditional hymns tends to stop short of the era in question.

I’m referring, of course, to the era of things like “Sunshine in my Soul” and “Love Lifted Me” and “When We All Get To Heaven” and all the songs of that ilk, that I struggle to find meaningful and whose music I cordially dislike.

My church loves these things, and they’re going to keep on singing them (nor should they stop just on my account). Leaving over musical differences would be incredibly petty, especially as it’s my problem, not anyone else’s. I’m not about to do something so foolish-seeming, particularly as the songs I don’t like seem to go hand in hand in US church culture with the hymns that I do. So I’ve been looking with increasing desperation for something I can like about them. Or at the very least, some rational reason for my irrational dislike.  What exactly is it that puts me off?

They do all share a certain set of features. The 6/8 time signature is fairly common, and I find that something about that in particular puts me off my stroke, but there are lots of other worship songs of that era that don’t have it, and I don’t like most of them, either. What they do all seem to share is what my wife calls “the walking rhythm”. It’s difficult to describe this in words, but it’s a sort of dompa-dompa-dompa-dompa that puts me in mind, not of people walking, but of woolly mammoths doing some sort of square dance.

Nothing can be done about my musical taste; in that sense it is an irrational dislike, and it doesn’t respond to reasoned argument. However, I find most of the lyrics at least as objectionable as the music, and that we can reason our way through. Why is it that I find this stuff so hard to like?

A great many of them are testimonial in nature. I was going to say that I always dislike testimonial songs, but that isn’t exactly true, because what’s “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” or “Long my imprisoned spirit lay” or “I will sing the wondrous story” if not testimonial? Truthfully, it’s not the testimonial form, it’s these testimonial songs.

The problem is that I tend to find the words rather trite. Simplistic, black-and-white answers for a question that I was never asking, using hackneyed Christianese that those of us raised in the faith had to wean ourselves away from for the sake of saying something intelligible to unbelievers. Who’d love something like that?

Probably everyone in my church except me, apparently. So why am I the oddball? What is it that they get that I don’t?

Maybe, I’ve started reasoning lately, it might help if I looked at the background of that time period of American history. What kind of spiritual and social conditions could produce “Sunshine in my Soul”, “There’s a New Name Written Down In Glory” or any of these other songs (including the legendary song that my Grandad likes to cite as an example of how not to do it: “Where’s My Lost Wandering Boy Tonight?”)? What was going on in America that moulded its hymnwriting into something that I do not emotionally grasp and find so incredibly hard to love?

I think I may be beginning to understand.

This period in my native Britain was the Victorian era. Well, and the Edwardian, but the tone was set by the reign of Queen Victoria. It was an era of industry, steam and factories, of increasing British dominance in world affairs and the advance of science and engineering. And it’s a period of increasing urbanisation. Charles Dickens wasn’t writing Oliver Twist about country life; it was the city, and the spiritual and social problems were those of the city.

By contrast, America was amazingly rural. The 1870s and 1880s was an era in which large sections of the America we know today were still being settled and relatively empty of ethnically white settlements. It’s the era portrayed by the cowboy movie, the era of How The West Was Won, of Indian massacres (I’m afraid I struggle to call any extermination campaign that viciously one-sided a “war”) and steam railroads and stagecoaches and cattle drives. Massive proportions of the population didn’t even live in the small towns that were being founded on an almost daily basis; they lived on farms or ranches at a distance from even their closest neighbours.

We’re dealing with rural people, living in what would be villages if they were in the UK, but without the presence of the ubiquitous parish churches of the other side of the Atlantic. When your town only got started a decade or so back, of course there was not going to be a parish church whose building was rebuilt in 1387. There might not be a church at all.

What I’m beginning to grasp is probably something that’s instinctive to any long-time American Christian: these are plain folk, and their music reflects that.

One might say “simple folk”, but simple has connotations of ignorance and stupidity, and even at best seems rather condescending. I honestly do not mean anything negative by it in this context.

Looking at the historical situation, what I’m seeing is a social setting in which most people didn’t have the access to education that I tend to take for granted. If Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novelised growing-up saga is at all typical of the times, we’re talking people who probably wouldn’t have much more than an elementary-school-equivalent education. They certainly weren’t stupid, or no more so than people who did have access to better education, just uncomplicated. Plain folk.

The songs of the era, these “camp meeting songs”, are the earnest expressions of simple people who’ve found that Jesus makes a real difference in their lives.

They sound like simplistic black-and-white before-and-after songs because that’s what they are. That’s where the people were at. If you’re in a rural American tent meeting because you know you need to get rid of the drink but you can’t do it yourself, you’re probably not going to have much time for elevated sentiments and deep theological truths set to music, but “I was blind but now I see” or “I was sinking deep in sin” or “There’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine” might be scratching where you itch.

I’m probably never going to love this music. For better or worse I’m an educated man, and my tastes are those of an educated man. That’s no better or worse than having the tastes of an uneducated man, it’s just different, by the way; but since I am an educated man, the simple, uncomplicated notes struck by most of these songs probably aren’t going to find a lot of deep personal resonance.

My musical taste, similarly, is what it is, and isn’t that amenable to being reasoned with. Try, as my other grandfather did, telling a child that hates peas that “they’re lovely” and that he’s being silly to not like them.

But though I’m probably not going to gravitate to the lyrics, nor particularly be enamoured of the music, I can appreciate the heart of them. I’d be the first to point out that just because it doesn’t match your experience doesn’t mean that it’s wrong; now I get to practice some of what I preach. Again. Who am I to say that just because my growing up with the faith in Britain didn’t look the way it’s portrayed in most of these songs that the faith behind them is somehow lesser? Unworthy? Rudimentary?

Of course it isn’t.

Still, I do continue to find the lyrics simplistic and the music mostly annoying. It’s a work-in-progress here; I’m still doing the research and trying to find out, still letting the understanding seep in.

I’m probably not going to wake up tomorrow just loving the Dance of the Woolly Mammoths. What I’m trying for, initially, is appreciation, and I think I’ve made a start.

Compromise Is Not A Dirty Word

Compromise.

Remember when it was considered a mostly positive thing?  A way to resolve differences without coming to blows, a recognition that the universe is imperfect and you’re probably not going to be able to have everything you want all at once.  That other people have things they want, too.

These days, it seems like any compromise is universally bad.  I hear radio advertisements beginning “I hate compromise”, like that’s a positive trait to be proud of.  We associate compromise with political double-dealing, with selling out your people or principles, with some sort of hypocrisy.  “I don’t compromise”, we proudly proclaim, meaning “I’m going all out for this”, whatever it is.  Black and white.  All or nothing.  My way or the highway.

I think we Christians began it.  I remember from my growing up how “no compromise” became a rallying-call among the evangelical, Bible-believing community to say “There are some things that aren’t negotiable”.  We believed ourselves under threat from the theologically liberal, secularising, politically-correct world, and the entire evangelical movement was a response to that sense of pressure.  A way to say, in effect, “we understand that sometimes you have to go along to get along, but there are some non-negotiables, beginning with the value of Scripture and the place of faith in our lives.”

These days, that list of non-negotiables seems to have become longer and longer.  My faith.  My interpretation of Scripture, even the questionable, tricky parts that we used to agree to disagree on.  My values.  My political beliefs.  My hopes for the future.  My way, my style, my fashion, my stuff, to the point where “No compromise” is being used to sell underwear to men.

Oh, it sounds rugged and manly to say “no compromise”, I’ll grant you.  A way to stick two fingers up to the world, prove your independence of spirit and general masculinity.  No-one tells me what to do.  Hooah!  I suppose that’s the point, if you’re an advertiser, but it seems to be rather missing it if you ask me.

The point is not that there aren’t non-negotiables.  We are human beings, and there really are things we value enough to say “no, I cannot bend on this point.”  That’s good and right; the basis of the ability to resist evil and stand up for what’s right.  In its best incarnation, it energises the true Christian martyr to be able to stare death in the face and refuse to deny the Lord no matter what kind of pressure is piled on.  We remember stories coming out from behind the Iron Curtain, and there are other stories today from places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea.  Some things really are worth dying for.

It also energises the Godly resister, the agent of change in society.  All the William Wilberforces and Harriet Tubmans and others of that kidney, people who refused to bow to the majority when they knew the majority was wrong about an important issue.

The problem is that we keep adding things to the list of non-negotiable stuff.  If we’re at the point now that the selection of men’s underwear is on the list of things that we cannot compromise, then we are at the point of social anarchy because no-one can get along with anyone any more.

Non-negotiabiliy is a hierarchy.  At the top there are the true non-negotiables; the things it really is better to die than give up.  I don’t think anyone is seriously placing underwear in that category, but it’s symptomatic of the urge to keep enlarging the list.  Then we come down the list to the group of things that aren’t quite as important, but we really don’t want to give them up.  I’ll put myself through the inconvenience of a long commute in order to live somewhere that my children can get a good education, that sort of thing.  It’s not a single category, it’s a ranked scale.  How much inconvenience are we prepared to put ourselves through for this thing?

It’s here that the advertisers part company with reality.  To them, and I’m beginning to suspect to a lot of political activists on both sides of the great divide between parties, it’s not a case of putting yourself through inconvenience for something so much as a rigid determination to make other people bend around what you personally want.  Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this; it’s the reason politics is such a mess right now.  We all have a tendency to see everything in black and white, absolute evil or absolute good, “he who is not for us is against us”.  And while there are things that are like that, the reality is that sometimes “no compromise” is just code for “I want what I want and if I don’t get it I will sulk.  Or get angry.”

Either way, it’s a little… petulant, sometimes.  Depending on what we’re currently claiming as being of such vital importance that any attempt to meet the other side halfway is wrong and evil, it might be good or it might be a two-year-old’s temper tantrum.

I’m not going to tell you what your core value non-negotiables ought to be.  I recognise that there are issues of black-and-white ethical division, things it’s worth dying for and things it’s worth self-sacrifice for.  I’m also aware that the lists aren’t going to be precisely the same for everyone.  Justice is a big deal for me; situations in which justice cannot be done for some reason anger me.  But I have friends who aren’t quite so hot on the subject of justice but who will spend themselves to the last penny for mercy.  Different values, but both of us valuing good things.

This is why we have different political parties to begin with.  Not everyone values every good thing equally, and sometimes the reality of the world is that to get one thing right you have to accept getting other things less right.  Parties are by nature a compromise, a collaboration of multiple people with a whole gamut of functioning core values, but who unify around a specific set of ideals.  Most people aren’t going to hold all of those ideals equally; indeed, in the monochromatic US political landscape there are probably a huge majority of people who vote for one or the other party for a short list of reasons and can’t stand other aspects of the party platform.

We make that sort of compromise all the time, but then we go into black-and-white, non-negotiable mode when it comes to the other party.  Many of whom may very well not like aspects of their party’s stated platform, but who feel like certain other aspects of which are sufficiently important to them that they are prepared to put up with the junk.  I suspect that if we actually listened to people on the other side, we might find that we have more in common than we thought.

And by “listen”, I don’t mean “listen while maintaining a checklist of points on which they are wrong so we can argue with them”.  I mean actually listen.  Assume that there is a valid reason for why they support what they do; it’s not “because I’m eeeeeviiiiiiil!!!!!!!!!!!”  It’s not “I’m just retarded and believe something I ought to know isn’t true”.  We need to rediscover the art of withholding judgement in order to dig a little.  Discover the why.  What’s important about that thing you’re supporting?  What value led you to support something I have problems with?  Not listening to condemn, but listening to understand.

Compromise.  There really are still things that we don’t actually need to get our own way on.  Oh, it’s nice when we can, but we should not use “no compromise” as an excuse to pout when things don’t go the way we want.

And I’m looking at both liberals and conservatives when I say that.  You’re both as bad as each other at this.  You conservatives think you understand why liberals believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening.  You liberals think you understand why conservatives believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening.  Neither of you are going to get everything you want, because the reality of the situation is more complex than can be encapsulated in a single sentence.  Nor even a paragraph.  We really do have to decide that we can flex on some things; rigid inability to compromise on a single iota isn’t doing anyone any good.

Enough tearing ourselves apart, enough using “no compromise” as an excuse to try and force the other guy to give in to your demands.  This isn’t a hostage situation, and you aren’t the kidnapper.

We’ve just come through the Christmas season, and I should point out that even my five-year-old understands the difference between a wish list and a demand list.  It seems that sometimes, as we grow up, we lose that simple wisdom.

Maybe it’d be a good idea to try and regain it.