The Beginning of Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  (Proverbs 1:7)

I have to confess that I really struggle with the book of Proverbs. It’s set up exactly antithetically to the way my mind wants to work. Oh, the first few chapters aren’t bad – all that bit with Wisdom personified sending out her invitation to become wise. But once it gets into the actual proverbs part after the end of chapter 9, my mind sort of glazes over and I lose the plot.

I’m fairly good at reading a verse in context and teasing out recalcitrant layers of meaning. I can get into the flow of an argument and analyse it, or bring out the lessons from a narrative story. But Proverbs just sit there. They don’t have a context to be read in – the previous verse may be talking about laziness while the following verse is addressing quarrelling. There’s very little that needs a lot of interpretation or analysis of that sort; it’s all application. So with nothing to do, my interpretive/analytical mind gets bored and wanders off. I have a harder time reading and really understanding the book of Proverbs than I do with any other book of the Bible.

People have advised me to read it in the Message. I’ve read it in the Message and it’s worse. People have tried to tell me to read it in this version or that version. I haven’t yet found a version in which I feel I actually understand it. My mind is set up to look for the wrong things. As a self-confessed lover of wisdom, it’s embarrassing that I find the chief book of the Wisdom literature so hard to read.

There are some gems, though. Like this one. It talks about “the fear of the Lord”, which is one of those things that just doesn’t translate well into modern English. It mentions “fools”, which again is a word with more to it than we might expect from its English translation. And it talks about knowledge, wisdom and instruction.

And now my mind is warmed up and engaged on the topic. There’s something to analyse and interpret.

Firstly, the fear of the Lord. It’s not something we hear a lot about any more. We don’t want to be afraid of God, and why should we be, anyway? He’s good and loving, isn’t He?

Yes, He’s good. He’s gracious and compassionate. But He’s also holy and sovereign. He’s the One who made the great white shark and the Kodiak bear and the black mamba and called them good.

To get a good handle on it we need to rewind our mental frame of reference back to the age when kings ruled as well as reigning. In that day, even good kings were addressed as “Dread Sovereign”, and the idea that you could offer them even the vaguest of impertinences was definitely anathema. Only an idiot would address Queen Elizabeth I simply as “Lizzie”, and she was well-beloved by her people. Go back even further and the idea becomes even more absurd and dangerous. You’d have to have a death wish to address Richard the Lionheart as “Ricky Boy”.

Americans show a similar level of respect to their Flag, at least on an official level. You can’t cut it, burn it or deface it. You can’t let it fly in the rain. You can’t let it touch the ground. You’re not even really supposed to display it on everyday objects – it treats the Flag like something common and it’s disrespectful.

And yet we’re awfully cavalier sometimes with how we approach the Almighty. We call Him Lord and Master and then make decisions for ourselves based on what we want. We say He’s the most important thing in our lives, then ignore Him for days at a time or treat obedience and holiness as optional extras. We box Him in with our extra-Biblical assumptions of what He can and cannot do. We sing about Him as Lover and Friend – and He is – but we forget that He’s also “a consuming fire” (Heb 13:28-29) and One into whose hands it is “a terrible thing” to fall (Heb 10:31).

The Lord is God of angel armies and Sovereign of heaven as well as gracious and compassionate. He’s not Someone you can take liberties with. He doesn’t exist purely to encourage us, bless us, forgive us and give us gifts. He doesn’t exist for us at all, but for Himself. He is the Creator, we are the Creature. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc 5:2) I’m probably going to offend someone by saying this, but in my opinion Matt Redman totally missed the point by turning this verse, of all verses, into an “intimate” sappy love song for Jesus. It isn’t about that; it’s about the transcendent power and greatness of God. It so often seems to me as though much of our worship is all about us. Our feelings about Him. What He’s done for us lately. Our love for Him rather than His love for us. We’re centre stage; Jesus is almost a passive object receiving our affections and devotion. Or we diminish Him by all of those “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” songs, bringing Him down to our level as if He’s a human lover.

There’s a place for intimacy with God. Jesus is described as Bridegroom and Lover and Friend. But there’s also a place for awe. For distance, Creatureliness, awareness of just how high His Kingship extends. He in heaven and we are on earth. We would do well to remember this. He’s not our boyfriend, because a sane boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is a relationship of equals, and He is far greater than we.

CS Lewis had it exactly right when he described Aslan as “not safe, but good”. When the children meet Him, he says that “If the children had had any illusions that something could not be both good and terrible, they were cured of it now.” Yes, He’s the Aslan who romps and laughs with Lucy and Susan, but He’s also a great big Lion that shakes Trumpkin like a terrier with a rat, chases Shasta, scars Aravis’ back, and humbles Caspian with “those eyes!”. He’s the King. He’s good, but He’s certainly not someone we can keep in our pockets and take out when we need some encouraging.

The fear of the Lord. Awe of God the Creator in heaven, because we are Creatures on earth.  He made us; we should not act as though we believe we made Him.

This is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, we are told: the place of Creaturely awe and reverence. The fear of the Lord doesn’t treat His word as something to bend to our own preferences, nor does it treat the holy obedience of faith as an option. He was Sovereign before He was Saviour, and our Gospel presentations ought to reflect this: not “come to Jesus and get your needs met”, as if He’s some sort of servant to our whims, but “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” Likewise, the call to holy living is an integral part of following Christ, not an optional extra. He’s God; we’re not. If we call Him “Lord”, we’d better do what He says, because that’s what “Lord” means. Or do we think that He’s a tame Lion, under our power?

“Fools despise wisdom and instruction”, the verse goes on to say.

The word “fool” in the Bible, particularly in the Wisdom literature, has slightly different connotations than our English word does. Yes, it means someone who lacks wisdom and understanding, but its primary meaning is “one who lacks moral sense”. Someone who is amoral, who doesn’t know or doesn’t believe there’s a difference between right and wrong.

Such a one makes it all about themselves. With no higher standard than “what is good for me”, there’s no acknowledgement of God as Lord, much less awe of Him. If I like it and it does me good, it’s good, and if I don’t, then it isn’t. “Right for me” becomes the deciding factor, and standards are relativised. I’m the arbiter of what’s true and right and good.

Even as supposed followers of Christ, we live like this an awful lot. Our ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong may be different from the world’s, but sometimes they’re still our ideas rather than God’s. Or we acknowledge God as God and Lord with our lips, but then turn around and live life based on our own judgement and thinking, or what our culture says, or what we want to be true. We live like we’re in charge.

But Wisdom is moral. It begins with an understanding of our own Creatureliness and God’s Creatorhood, with an acknowledgement that He is God and we aren’t. Thus, He has the sole right to determine what “right” and “wrong” are. Our standards are right only insofar as the conform to His, not the other way around. Behaving as though we are the arbiters of good and evil is foolishness, pure and simple.

It’s difficult to teach someone like that. If they despise the very basis of Biblical wisdom by insisting that they can make their own standards or living as if there is no higher authority, then all your wise words aren’t going to count for much. You have to step back a few steps and come at this from first principles, rather than jumping in with “that’s wrong!” when they reject your basis for coming to that conclusion.

The fear of the Lord, that’s where it begins. If we over-emphasise the immanence of God without His transcendence, we’re left with a shrunken idol of a Safe Jesus, a Meeting-My-Needs Personal Servant Jesus, a Jesus As My Boyfriend. Someone whose commands we can feel free to ignore or sidestep.

“Safe? Whoever heard of a safe Lion? Of course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

We’d do well to act like it.


A Condition of Blessing?

The proximate cause of this post was Levi Thetford’s recent quotation from C. H. Spurgeon, but the subject is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Giving to God shouldn’t be this complicated.

Ten percent of your income, right? According to the standard teaching on tithing that I’ve heard, that’s ten percent of your gross income, before any taxes and other things come out. This is, so we’re told, God’s Bit; it doesn’t belong to you and if you infringe on it, you’re robbing God. Also according to the standard tithe teaching, this part is all supposed to go to your church, and any giving to Christian organisations or individual missionaries that you’d like to do is “offerings” on top of that. I’m going to talk about both under the general heading of “tithe”, because I’m lazy (and a two-fingered typist) and typing “tithes and offerings” all the time is hard work.

Preferably, we’d like to do the sensible thing and budget our giving, set up standing orders to handle most of it so that the church and the individuals and organisations we support have a guaranteed, regular amount coming in.

This is easy if you have a fixed salary and know from week to week or month to month how much you’re going to make. But I work in the rather weather-dependent construction industry, and if it rains, I don’t work and don’t get paid. As no-one has yet found a way to schedule rainfall, this means I don’t know from week to week how much I’m going to earn.

In addition, due to the insane way America handles taxation, a massive proportion of my family’s annual income comes in the form of tax credits and refund. This comes in the form of a single annual amount, part of which is over-tax refunded (and has thus had tithe paid on it) and part of which is tax credits and other money the government gives us for reasons of social engineering (and thus hasn’t). I’m not an accountant. My degree is in Biology, which is the science you do if you hate maths. (How I came to be in construction is a long story). I’ve been committed to following the standard teaching on tithing and not robbing God, but I find calculating all of this to be an utter pain and a real burden. It really shouldn’t be this complicated.

Jesus said about the Sabbath that it was made for man, not man for it (Mark 2:27). By extension, what God requires is not supposed to be an unreasonable burden, but is for our good and benefit. I like to give, but I hate the hassle of calculating it all out so that I know I’m not holding out on God. It’s a pain.

So I’m coming to question the whole idea of how we approach the tithe.

The passages about tithing are all in the Old Testament. The Law, particularly the book of Deuteronomy, lays out the method by which the tribe of Levi were to be supported by the other eleven tribes (twelve if you count the division of Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh). The New Testament doesn’t even mention the word, apart from when Jesus is castigating the Pharisees for tithing their fine herbs while neglecting justice and mercy (Mt 23:23). Tithing wasn’t a requirement put on Gentile believers by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), nor was in mentioned as an instruction in any of the New Testament letters.

This is a far cry from what you’d expect if you listened to some of those well-known preachers whose whole message appears to be how God will automatically bless you and make you rich if you are faithful in tithing to Him. According to this teaching, the requirement to tithe is for all time and all peoples, a condition of receiving the blessing of God. If you don’t give God His cut, then He will cause all of your money to trickle away, and He will withdraw His hand of blessing from your life.  And on top of the tithe, there are offerings, which are free-will gifts that you nevertheless ought to feel obligated to give, because God will not bless you unless you do.

Yay. Guilt and fear, all in the same package.

I touched on the automatic nature of God’s blessing that this seems to assume in a previous post, but it’s worth reiterating. God is not a vending machine, where you put tithe in and get blessing out. Unlike pagan gods, you don’t buy His favour.

Those whose teaching heavily emphasises the tithe usually phrase it as something like “God has covenanted Himself to bless you if you tithe”, neatly wiggling around the accusation that they are making God into a Coke machine. But the effect is the same, so really, isn’t the distinction pure semantics?

You’d expect that if they were right about how important tithing is, that there would be more teaching about it in the New Testament. If we’re expected to tithe, Jew and Gentile, there are very real and serious questions that need to be addressed. Should the Jew’s tithe go to the physical Levites in the physical temple, as the Law says? Should the Gentile’s tithe go to support those who administer the ministry of the Good News, or likewise to the (Jewish) Levites and temple? What about the fact that it was those in charge of the temple who were most hostile to the Gospel? And why should a Gentile believer in Jesus be required to keep the part of the Law regarding tithe when “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4)?

The New Testament does talk about giving quite a lot. But it manages to do so without once mentioning the tithe.

The summary of New Testament teaching on giving is that there is an expectation that we, as believers, will be doing so. This is natural and right; God is a generous God and if we are walking in step with His Spirit we will naturally want to be generous like Him. The New Testament says we should give generously (“with liberality”, as the King James Bible puts it: unstintingly, without measure, not counting it out). We should give cheerfully. And we should give what we have decided in our heart to give, not grudgingly or under compulsion (II Cor 9:7 and others).

Now, I have several pastors and numerous missionaries among my friends, and I know none of them are rolling in it at the best of times. They have to feed their families out of a part of what is given to the church. Anything which puts these worthy servants of the Lord further from the breadline is OK by me.

But I have to stand against the idea that tithe is a requirement and condition of blessing.

We’re told that we shouldn’t give under compulsion. I’ve seen churches that make the receiving of the offering into a huge “celebration” with dancing and clapping up to the front of the church to give. Can you say “psychological pressure”? Yeah. Everybody is given the opportunity to look and judge, and there’s a real sense of “we’re going to try and manipulate your emotions so that you will feel obligated to give more”. The Bible is clear. No compulsion.

But then, too, what is the tithe at all but compulsion formalised and writ large? If tithing is an absolute requirement, it’s a compulsion, and the New Testament specifically says that we should give what we have decided to in our heart, cheerfully because we want to rather than grudgingly because we have to.

If tithing is a condition of God’s blessing, how is this not legalism? Blessing is the favour of God. We’re now apparently saying that God’s favour is conditional on our tithing faithfulness; thus, it’s something we can earn and buy. Not only that, but that we have to earn and buy it; God’s favour is “conditional on our tithing”. We just made the favour of God into something conditional on a thing we have to do (tithing). Has no-one actually read Galatians?

“Oh, but we’re not saying that if you don’t tithe, you can’t be saved. Just that God’s blessing is conditional on your faithfulness in the tithe”. Grace is grace. Unmerited favour is just that, unmerited. I might say, with St. Paul; “Having begun with the Spirit, are you now trying to achieve your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:3). Salvation, justification, sanctification and blessing are all by the grace of God.

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but there is a New Covenant. We’re not under Law but under grace. The righteous requirements of the Law? Met in Jesus. Not only can we not earn God’s favour by what we do (including tithing), but we aren’t supposed to try, because trying to earn it is an offence against the grace and generosity of God.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t give. God is the ultimate Giver, and we want to be like Him. But let’s lose this legalistic approach to tithing and let God’s grace be our guide for giving. Seriously, which is the greater amount of giving: 10% or “with liberality”? Given Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments about murder, vengeance and adultery, why should we suppose God’s holy standards would be any lower in the lesser matter of giving? If the Spirit of the holy, gracious, generous God of Heaven truly dwells in our hearts, then He is the One setting the priorities for “what we have decided in our heart to give”. God’s generosity ought to be our standard, not ten percent. Getting tied up in exactly how much our tithe ought to be just seems a lot like Pharisaism and the attempt to buy off God like He’s some pagan idol or Mob boss.

“Freely you have received. Now freely give” (Mt 10:8).

So my family will be trying an experiment this year in not tithing. Instead, we will ask God what He wants us to give and then joyfully do what He says. I can almost guarantee that we’ll end up giving more.

The Stone Table

The Stone Table

Having a rain day yesterday, and thus no work, I decided to get out my paint and brushes and see if I could set down on canvas one of the images in my head.

It’s not something I’ve done a lot of late, because it takes some planning to get the materials out from under my son Ethan’s bed while he’s not taking his nap, and he’s only stopped taking afternoon naps fairly recently. Also, my wife has a tendency to use my off days as a time to bustle around doing all the things she needs to do that are so much more complicated with children in tow. I don’t normally mind – with my work schedule I don’t see nearly enough of my children – but it does rather put a damper on painting.

So yesterday I decided, “you know what? I want to paint something”, and actually did it. Procrastinators of the world unite, some time tomorrow.

The result was “The Stone Table” here:

The Stone Table

I’ve been thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia quite a lot recently, and with Easter just passed it was perhaps inevitable that I should settle on the Narnian equivalent of the Easter story as my subject matter, but there’s more going on in my internal world than just an Easter picture.

In the Narnian world of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table is a sort of megalithic monument, described as a great table of stone engraved with ancient writing. It’s the initial rendezvous point for Aslan’s company and the children, where the great Lion is encamped in his royal pavilion. More importantly, it’s where the Witch kills Aslan, the Narnian Christ-figure, and where he comes back to life in resurrected power.

It’s described as an ancient place even in the days of the coming of Aslan and the breaking of the Witch’s hundred-year winter, connected with the powerful and mysterious Deep Magic from the dawn of time:

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?”

“Let us suppose I have forgotten it,” replied Aslan. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” the Witch shrieked. “Tell you what is written on this very Stone Table? Tell you what is carved in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire stones of the secret hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-over-Sea?”

As I’ve grown older, the Stone Table has become associated not only with the Crucifixion but with the Law of Moses. Linguistically, it’s practically no distance at all from the tablets of stone that the Law was written on to a table of stone that the Deep Magic is written on.

Is the Deep Magic a Narnian incarnation of the Law, then?

Well, partly, perhaps. Certainly it looks symbolic of the “written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (Colossians 2:14). The Law as our enemy, the cold power of legalism, the “letter” that “kills” as opposed to the “Spirit” that “gives life”.

Even, or more probably especially, as a follower of Christ, it’s dead easy to fall into legalism. Pun intended. Legalism is, after all, the essence of the religious spirit: the Rules we live by that tell us what God want from us and what we have to do to be a Good Christian. All of the “as a Chistian you shouldn’t…” things we add to the simple obedience of faith. Listen to that sort of music. Watch that sort of TV programme. Support that sort of political agenda.

In Colossians, St. Paul refers to these sorts of rules (“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Col2:20-21) as “the basic principles of this world”, the same word he uses in Galatians 4:9 to describe the “weak and miserable principles” which the Galatian church were in danger of turning back to. As I understand it, the Greek words translated “basic principles” are also translateable as “elemental spirits”, and this connection may reveal a second layer of symbolism in the Deep Magic and the Stone Table.

In the ancient world of Greek philosophy there were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Everything that existed was thought to be a combination of these four substances, which were presided over by guiding spiritual forces – the “powers of nature” if you will. In the Stone Table we have Earth, obviously. The “fire stones of the secret hill” are connected with Fire. The very name of the Emperor-over-Sea reveals a connection with Water. That’s three out of four.

I have no idea whether this symbology is deliberate choice on Lewis’ part or simply me reading into it. On the face of it, this speech of the Witch’s is just ornamental detail, but it’s suggestive ornamental detail. And CS Lewis may have had more going on in his Narnia books than meets the eye, as Michael Ward persuasively argues in Planet Narnia. A connection between the Deep Magic and the elemental spirits of this world is not out of the question, and certainly the way St. Paul uses the word in Galatians and Colossians is more to do with legalistic rules of “righteousness” than with the ancient elements. The Law, both as it is written and as it is applied.

But the Deep Magic, like the Law of Moses, is not bad in itself. It is, as Aslan points out, the Emperor’s Magic. It’s written on the Emperor’s sceptre; impregnated into the very fabric of the Narnian creation at the dawn of time itself. As St. Paul said, “the Law is holy and the commandment is holy (Romans 7:12). How can a Law which Paul speaks of as good in one breath be described as our enemy in the next?

It’s because we are fallen. We’re sinful, under the thumb of selfish desires we cannot fully master, proud, conceited, greedy and wrathful. A good Law can have bad effects if the one it is applied to is bad. To rescue us from the bad effects of the Law required something fundamental, because the Law, like the Deep Magic, is woven into the very fabric of the created order.

The universe is moral. We crave justice and hate it when justice cannot be seen to be done because we recognise at root that injustice Should Not Be. But all of humanity’s efforts have never succeeded in rooting out our flawed natures and creating the perfect moral society. Fascism tried. Communism tried. The Religious Right look like they’re trying, with all of the attempts to legislate Christian morality.

But we can’t do it on our own. Even the best of us are flawed. “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The whole idea that we can make a paradise here on earth by our own efforts is nothing less than a reinvention of the ancient alchemical dream that we can make gold.

In Narnia, however, the Deep Magic is not the highest law. There is a Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, of which the Witch is sublimely ignorant. Aslan’s sacrificial death on the Stone Table puts an end to the power of the written code and the elemental powers of legalism. As Aslan explains, “If she had known the Deeper Magic, she would have known that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery were killed in a traitor’s stead, then the Deep Magic would unravel, the Stone Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards”.

The cracking and breaking of the Table is no natural event, but part of Aslan’s resurrection and symbolic of the final end of the Witch’s power, just as the arrival of Father Christmas heralded the joy of the new Spring and the unravelling of her hundred-year winter.

If a stone table were to break naturally through the weathering of years or an earthquake, you would expect it to collapse in the middle. This is how it’s often portrayed. But the breaking of the Table is anything but natural, so I painted it the opposite way. Just as in the mundane world the Temple curtain had to be torn from top to bottom, so in the Narnian world the Table should buckle upwards as if from a blast out of the very ground itself.

“What is it?” Susan asked. “Is it Magic?”

“Yes!” said Aslan’s voice. “It is more Magic!”

The Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. The grace and mercy of God that triumphs over judgement and rescues from death.

I’m quite pleased with how it came out. Both the reality and the picture.

Without the Resurrection

Without the Resurrection, none of it makes sense.
The Cross is just another tragedy, a miscarriage of justice. Another innocent victim of the envy and sinfulness of men. The life of Jesus that of a good man inexplicably seeking death, and death in the most horrible way imaginable.
There’s no church. There may be a group of people still trying to follow Jesus and trying to live out his teaching, but that’s not the same thing.
The hope of the resurrection of the dead remains a vague and possibly unfounded piece of wishful thinking. Something to comfort yourself with when a loved one dies, not something to fortify the spirit against potential martyrdom.
There’s no assurance of salvation, no sure and living hope.
No putting an end to the Law and its written code. No grace in which we stand, only a vague hope that God will choose to be merciful.
What the early church in the Apostolic age talked about most was not the cross, not even in all its atoning glory.
It was the Resurrection.
The symbol of Christianity was never meant to be a cross, but an empty tomb.
Christ is risen!

Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

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.

Expecting Someone Taller

Palm Sunday being the day before yesterday, I’ve been thinking again about the Triumphal Entry.

Most of us probably know the story.  Jesus knows His time is coming.  He tells His disciples to go and find someone else’s donkey – a donkey, we’re told, that has never been ridden – untie it and bring it to Him.  In a weirdly code-and-cypher bit of sign and countersign, He tells them the password to say if someone challenges them.  Then Jesus gets up on the donkey, which in addition to never having been ridden has recently foaled, and calmly rides it into Jerusalem for the biggest festival time of the year, into a din of noise and hubbub that would be guaranteed to freak out even the most placid of animals.  All the while, his disciples and others in the crowd are shouting expressions of praise to God, waving palm branches and laying their coats on the road in an impromptu red carpet.

It’s indisputably Messianic – this is Jesus doing it, right? – but it’s not really what anyone was expecting.  Especially not in the context of what was to come.

First, the donkey.  Anyone who’s watched (or especially read) any Westerns knows how dangerous it is to get up on an animal that has never been ridden before.  In the natural, it’s going to freak out as soon as someone throws a cloak or blanket over its back as a saddlecloth.  Something is on its back, and it smells wrong.  Equines kick when they are placed in this situation; they don’t sit there calmly while you mount them without a stirrup.  Add in the fact that the donkey had recently foaled and was going to be nervous because strange people were around its colt.  And add to that the hubbub and confusion of people shouting praises and waving palm branches and all the festal crowds.

The disciples knew animals the way we know cars.  They knew what ought to happen.  But they also know Jesus.  They’d watched him still storms and raise the dead.  Still, they had to have been nervous.

I don’t know how aware most people were of the Messianic prophecies concerning the Promised One coming to Jerusalem “meekly, on a donkey”.  I imagine the Pharisees and religious people at least knew.  It’s there for anyone with eyes to see.  But as we can tell from our own day, not everyone seems to have eyes to see, in that sense.  Was this a generally-known central portion of Messianic expectation, or an obscure prophecy which had mostly been forgotten?

Given the political expectations of Messiah at the time, and the contemporary norm for rulers, it could the latter.  Kings didn’t ride donkeys.  Donkeys were small, common and unheroic; Kings rode horses.  Great big war-horses for preference, riding crowns and armour if possible.  The people of Judea seem to have been expecting Messiah to be a rerun of the Maccabees, but on steroids: a military campaign to drive out the Roman oppressors and install a Divine monarchy which would sweep Israel to political prominence in the world.

But it could also have been a generally known Messianic expectation.  It would explain the crowd’s enthusiastic participation easily without necessarily making everyone into mindless sheep following each other without any real understanding of what they were there for.  Yes, people would have been curious.  “What’s going on?” is a natural human reaction.  But to participate as enthusiastically as we’re told they did, they’d probably have to have at least some inkling of what was afoot.

Then there’s the reaction of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Upon hearing the hosannas to the Messianic Son of David, they get offended. They’d already made up their minds about Jesus. Jesus didn’t do what they expected a righteous prophet or Messiah to do. He didn’t conform to their popular religious ideas about the Sabbath, tithing, fasting and ritual purity. He touched lepers, hung out with tax men and did the “work” of healing on the sacred Sabbath. He acted like he was a sinner, or at the very least condoning sin by hanging out with the obviously unrighteous. Therefore He couldn’t be the Messiah.

It’s difficult for us to conceive of just how shocking Jesus’ actions were to established religious norms. To religious Jews of Jesus’ day, honouring the Sabbath and ritual purity were the two great tests of orthodoxy.

We look at it and tend to see that it should have been obvious that the Sabbath and the ritual purity laws weren’t the all-consuming be-all and end-all they were being made into. That justice and mercy rather than tithe and Sabbath were the priorities of God is obvious to us, and I’m sure most Pharisees would have given verbal assent to the idea. And yet their behaviour was the opposite. Tithing their garden herbs yet creating and perpetuating vast injustices.

What are our modern shibboleths? Do we believe and say all the right things about what God wants and then act as if one or two particular issues are what really define our faith? I have to look at the way many of us approach abortion and homosexuality and say maybe.

What’s interesting is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees about this mismatch of priorities. He doesn’t tell them they are wrong to tithe their herbs, but that they are wrong to do so while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

Being righteous in a minor matter does not count for much if you’re sinning in a major one.

So here comes Jesus, on the back of a donkey. Not fitting our image either of a ruler or a religious man.

We were, as they say, expecting someone taller.

But what we have is what we need. Friend of sinners, because all of us fall into that category. Healer, no matter whether all the theological rules say they deserved what they got. Full of grace and truth. Humble, because arrogant truthfulness is no good to anyone. Coming into Jerusalem as Messiah-King, but to be borne up on a cross, not a throne.

Hosanna. Save us, O God.

Are We Losing The Word “Missions”?

We all know what a missionary is, right?

Well, maybe. The word has sort of fallen into disfavour over the last few decades, much like the word “crusade” has thankfully fallen out of the lexicon of most of our churches.

There were good reasons for dropping “crusade” as a term for evangelistic outreach. I mean, really. Using the term given to the great sin of the Mediæval church in taking up arms to extend the notion of Christendom by slaughtering Jews and Muslims down to the women and children to refer to a public event-centred push to invite people to follow Christ? Yeah, that really works. Besides, the whole event-centred model isn’t nearly as prominent as it used to be. The culture has shifted, and people don’t respond to it as well.

Missionary, similarly, has fallen into disfavour. Most of the places that most need to hear the Good News about Jesus are places where you can’t use the word “missionary” to describe what you do. Even a suggestion online that Fred Bloggs may be “serving the Lord as a missionary” in some countries may be enough to get workers kicked out and churches closed.

Besides, there’s a lot of what current missionaries do that doesn’t match our traditional images from the colonial era when the missionary was all too often another arm of colonial government.

With “missions”, the situation is a little different. It’s not that we’ve dropped the word from our lexicon, but it’s become so broad and all-encompassing that we may be in danger of losing it. Also, we’re replacing it with “missionality”, a word which my wife hates and I have some mixed feelings about.

There are a number of factors in play here. Firstly, there’s the simple fact that people want to get away from the nasty old colonial image. Pith-helmeted moustachioed white men trekking through the jungle to bring civilisation to the savages is not really anything many people want to be associated with, and in any case it’s worlds apart from the urban Christian worker in Tokyo or Amsterdam, or Nairobi for that matter. Very few spend most of their time doing what we might call “traditional missionary activities” such as leading or planting churches, preaching, running Bible studies or translating the Bible.

Not that any of these are bad. The unfinished task of translation in particular remains a great need calling for people with very particular skill sets. But the bulk of “missionary work” isn’t comprised of those things, and we’ve mostly realised that.  It may be part of why we’ve moved away from using “missions” to describe it.

The world around us is getting increasingly hostile to the idea of “interfering with the lifestyles” of various “untouched” tribal peoples around the world, too. The Evil White Missionary coming in to make all the locals into good little white people is a common secularist stereotype. Instead, it is reasoned, we should leave them alone to continue in their beliefs in harmony with nature. No-one mentions that by doing so, we’re leaving them as easy prey for unscrupulous business interests such as powerful logging companies or whatever, who are often all too willing to turn them into slave labour or exterminate their traditional way of life. But we’re left with a sour taste in our mouths on the whole missionary enterprise, what with trying to realistically face up to the legacies of colonialism and the destruction of local traditions and ways of life that have occurred under the aegis of missions. Sorting through all that tangled mess is going to be uncomfortable. Maybe we’d best just avoid it.

Then, too, modern missionaries are increasingly not white and not Western, and mission fields are increasingly not non-white and non-Western. South Koreans are everywhere. Brazil and India are rising as sending nations. Western Europe is a major mission field. The whole picture is changing, so that the popular image of the pith-helmeted jungle explorer is increasingly irrelevant.

A second factor is the growth of the short-term missions paradigm. This may be more of an American phenomenon than a British one, but I’ve been out of the country of my birth long enough now that I honestly have little idea about the current situation in Britain. Certainly I don’t remember missions being so totally associated with the short-term there.

I spent several years working with YWAM. YWAM was one of the organisations that pioneered the whole idea of short-term missions, back in the ’60s when “missionary” was understood to be a lifetime calling and missions organisations wanted you to have a seminary education and at least 3-5 years’ successful pastoral experience in your home country before they would consider sending you out to where you sensed God calling you. Back then, the idea that you maybe didn’t need a seminary education to serve God overseas was new and radical.

How times change. These days, it seems like every church has its annual “mission trip” to Mexico, or a Native American reservation, or further afield to Asia or Africa. Large sections of the local church pile into a bus or plane and travel to the place they will be “ministering” in, bringing shoes or school supplies or financial aid to help build a church building in Bongo Bongo.

Now, I won’t say that none of this is profitable. At the very least, it gives poor globally-ignorant Americans an opportunity to see that other parts of the world really aren’t like America. And going to a village in Africa that doesn’t have clean water and digging a well helps everyone concerned.

But is it missions?

What is actually being done here? Looking at some of the things churches do, I wonder if we aren’t creating a culture of dependency or just doing something meaningless that makes us feel good. Native Americans on the Rosebud reservation (as a purely random example) don’t need white tourists pretending to help by bringing donations from their rich white brothers. They need boots on the ground permanently, someone who will actually treat them as equals rather than children and help them to wrestle with questions of identity, lack of opportunity, lack of infrastructure, depression and alcoholism.

The other problem with short-term missions is on the other end of things. We’re losing the idea of missions as a career. I don’t know how many people I talked to when I was trying to raise support to be sent out permanently as a missionary that would find out about our calling and say something like “You’re a missionary? That’s great! When will your trip be?

No, you don’t understand. I’m talking about moving there and setting down roots. But we think that because we take an annual trip to Mexico to bring school supplies to the poor children down there that we’re doing our bit for missions. Why should we support someone that we’re never going to see? We’re already doing missions, aren’t we?

A two-week trip is mostly little more than an exposure trip. It should supplement, not replace, long-term work. Hosting short-termers takes a lot of work that sometimes takes away from other activities the local workers could be doing, and what are you going to do with 20+ foreign young people who don’t speak the language, have no idea that foreign cultures really exist and are more interested oIn where the nearest wifi hotspot is than in the actual work they are supposedly there to do? I’ve been on both sides of the short-term equation, both being on teams and hosting them, and in my experience I’d say their usefulness is limited. “Limited” is not the same as “no use at all”, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all we sometimes want to make them.

The other major factor in play in the death of the word “missions” is the idea of “missionality” and the broadening of the idea of what constitutes missions.

I have to confess to some mixed feelings about the word “missional”. On the one hand, I think my wife is mistaken to label it a meaningless non-word; it does serve a real purpose in succinctly expressing the idea of the Missio Dei: that God is on a mission and our job as His people is to join Him in it. “Thinking missionally” about something emphasises that we have a real job to do as believers in advancing the Kingdom of God, and that that job doesn’t get to be put in a box for a select few only.

On the other hand, though, there is a real difference between ministering in your own country and culture and language and ministering in a foreign country and culture and language, and we’re in danger of losing that.

With the rise of “missionality”, everything is missions. Volunteering at the local homeless shelter is missions. Donating to a food bank is missions. Inviting people in the apartment complex across the street to come to your church’s Easter celebration is missions. Baking a cake for your neighbour’s birthday is missions.

I can see the point. There can be a sort of unhelpful mystique among Christians about “mission work”, like it’s somehow better or more holy than living for Jesus where you are in your everyday job. It isn’t more holy or more special, but it is different. There’s a certain skill set or temperament involved in being able to carry on your regular life with your family in an entirely foreign situation, among people of another culture who really don’t have the same assumptions as people you grew up with, in another language with a different alphabet. Facing misunderstandings from at home in their service country and abroad in their sending country. It’s not something everybody can do well, and we ought to honour those whom God has called to this life. It’s not more holy or more special, but it is a calling, and those to whom the calling has come really do need and deserve our support.

If everything is missions, then everyone is a missionary, and there’s no difference between buying school supplies for deprived local children and translating the Bible into Karakalpak. So we can spend the church’s missions budget entirely within the local area and not only see immediate benefit from what we’re doing but save money because we don’t need a separate budget for local outreach.

Uhm, I have a problem with that. While volunteering at a local homeless shelter is certainly worthy and would normally be counted as ministry, I’m not sure that in and of itself it counts as missions. Inviting people to my church’s Easter celebration is certainly outreach, but I’d hesitate to call it missions. We’re missing something.

There’s a cross-cultural dimension to missions that it seems we’re not getting. And it’s not that we need to immediately cease all local ministry as the church, either. It should be both-and, not either-or. Jerusalem (our immediate locality), Judea (our home country), Samaria (neighbouring countries) and the ends of the earth. Some people will spend their entire lives ministering in their own locality. And that’s good. We need more people to really get behind the idea of doing what the Father is doing wherever they are. But some people will be specifically called by God to the ends of the earth. And we need that, too.

So while I generally approve of the idea behind “missionality”, I can’t help feeling like we’re losing something.