A Life Lived In Gratitude

In some ways, Thanksgiving is possibly the most Christian of all American holidays. And I’m including Christmas and Easter, at least in their popular expressions.

In many ways, most of the other American holidays have been turned into excuses for commecialism and greed, and while “they” appear to be trying the same with Thanksgiving, it has a little more built-in resistance to the commercial spirit. As evidence, witness the following:

Christmas often seems to have- become all about the presents. Retailers love it because it produces a massive flood of buying and selling, kids love it often because they get massive amounts of new stuff. The secular icon of Christmas, Santa Claus, is someone who enables and encourages getting more stuff.

Easter is in some ways much the same: its lapine secular icon brings chocolate and candy, and it’s all about getting stuff.

Halloween is another excuse for getting sweets, and so, in may ways, is Valentine’s Day.

All of them so often seem to promote greed, covetousness and dissatisfaction: “getting more stuff” becoming “what I’ve got isn’t good enough”.

Thanksgiving, though, is a day of being thankful for what you have already. A day of calling to mind blessings received and celebration not of getting more, but of having received. Gratitude is naturally difficult to commercialise, because it is the antithesis of the commercial spirit.

In many ways, gratitude expresses the essence of the Christian life. Jesus has already done the work, achieved our salvation, rescued us from the corruption that comes with setting ourselves at the centre of it all. Our role is not to do this or that good deed to try to earn it, as if God is like Santa and only brings gifts to good little girls and boys, in other words, to those who deserve it.

Because if we’re honest, we none of us deserve it. We’ve all been self-centred, hurt people, deceived and been deceived.

But God gives His gifts anyway. He gives as a gift that which we cannot earn. We can’t buy it with our own good works because it isn’t for sale to begin with.

Receiving with gratitude is the only appropriate response.

Thanksgiving Day is also a time of gathering together in celebration. There are big family feasts. It’s a party.

It’s altogether appropriate that Heaven is described in the Bible as a feast. Grateful receiving of a gift of that magnitude is naturally a cause of great joy. You want to celebrate. Lavish feasts can be held because of the generosity of the Giver.

If we ever get to a place in which our Christianity is all dour rule-keeping and work, we are becoming like the elder son in Jesus’ parable. The one who complained that “all these years I’ve been slaving for you and you never gave me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends”. The one who had received his half of the inheritance at the same time as the younger one, but who was so caught up in trying to earn his father’s favour that he apparently missed it. When the father said “all I have is yours”, he wasn’t speaking hyperbole. The elder son could have had a party any time he wanted; instead, he thought he had to be in slavery because that’s what the father wanted.

Well, the Father has no slaves, only sons. And He delights to bless, simply because He can. Thanksgiving is the right response.

Christianity is at its root a life lived in gratitude for what we have received. The Thanksgiving holiday puts flesh on that, makes it visible.

So let us then give thanks for what we have received.


Taking a short break

As I kind of indicated on Wednesday, my mother and grandfather flew in from the UK yesterday. They’ll be spending most of two weeks here with us over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Last time I had family coming in (in June), I had more prewritten stuff that I could schedule ahead, but this time I’m not that far ahead of myself.

Consequently I’m not planning on writing or posting anything for at least the next week, with the exception of something scheduled for Thanksgiving Day itself.

If you’re an American (or indeed, anyone else) who celebrates Thanksgiving, enjoy the holiday. If the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday isn’t part of your tradition, be blessed anyway.

I will return in December.

Which will be Advent, and should have something appropriate done to mark the season. I’ll see what I can come up with…

The Importance of Being Family

We’re coming to one of the big family times of year. The American holiday of Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and Christmas is looming large behind it.

I have family flying in from the UK for Thanksgiving, and so the subject is much on my mind.  I thought I’d have a go at putting words to some of what I learned about family growing up.

I can’t speak for other people’s families, but in my family we’ve always had a sense that family is important. And Christmas was always our big time of family getting together. We’d usually spend Christmas day with one side of the family and Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) with the other side, almost without fail. It was family. It was important.

We were never very demonstrative or I-love-you-y, either on my Mum’s or my Dad’s side; indeed, on Dad’s side we’d frequently spend Christmas teatime locked in battle over something meaningless like whose definition of a word was correct, but we were always there for each other. Family love was far less Hallmark and far more Three Musketeers: One for all and all for one.

Mum’s side of the family might not have argued like Dad’s, but we still spent most Christmas afternoons and evenings engaged in the combat-at-one-remove of one or other of my aunt and uncle’s collection of intellectual board games: Trivial Pursuit, or that weird geographical game Ubi, or something else.

Dad’s side may have spent hours in heated exchange over some foolish thing another family member had said, trying to get them to see sense, but at the end of the day we were all there for one another. It really was “nothing personal”.

As an example of this, there was a sort of never-spoken code to these family arguments that we all lived by. There were no ad hominem attacks. You didn’t refer to family behaviour past or present. You weren’t nasty, you weren’t vicious, you never made it personal. You grew a thick skin or you wouldn’t survive, but you only ever targeted the silly things the other person said or believed, never the person themselves. It never needed to be said because it was just the way it was. Family was too important to risk by really aiming to wound.

And if anyone from outside the family had threatened one of us, I have no doubt at all that the entire clan would have closed ranks against the threat. You mess with my cousin, my uncle, my sister, you mess with me.

Like I said, Three Musketeers. One for all, all for one.

It didn’t matter that we all had different ideas and all believed we were right, we were family. That meant that even though I’m fairly sure Dad wasn’t best pleased by my decision to answer the call of God that I felt to the mission field, I knew that if I really needed him, he’d be on the next plane to wherever I was in the world. Probably racing my mother to see who would get there first. It was family, therefore important. We could fight like cats and dogs over nothing at all, but at the end of the day, we stood shoulder to shoulder.

I always associate the high importance of family with my Dad’s side of the family more than my Mum’s, but I think that’s partly because of the way it was expressed. Mum’s side of the family were less demonstrative all round. Christmas at Granny and Grandad’s was organised, well-ordered and calm. Presents happened one by one so everyone could see what everyone else got. We said thank you. We played games. The TV usually stayed off, so that we could interact as a family. Everything had its place and everything was in its place. Christmas at Grandma and Gron-Gron’s was merry Bedlam. The TV was almost always on even if no-one was watching. Fourteen shouted conversations would spring up across each other and across the TV, which always showed a fuzzy picture with multiple echoes (it made snooker especially bizarre to watch). Presents were opened all at once and I seldom really registered which gift came from whom. And we argued happily into the evening.

But family was family. We were all there for one another.

As we got older, my maternal-side cousins increasingly skipped out on the family Christmas in order to be with friends. I never really understood this; it was their choice, of course, but it wasn’t mine. Friends were great, but this was more important than friends; this was family.

The older I get and the more I hear about some of my work colleagues’ family lives, the better and saner my own family appears. We may have argued a lot, but it really wasn’t anything personal. We may have been a bit of a monkey house at times, we may seldom have said the words, but we had and still have what counts: each other. We are family. One for all, all for one.

Carrying A Concealed Weapon: The Story of Ehud

The Biblical stories of the Judges are frequently both fascinating and problematic.

There’s the whole business of Gideon’s fleeces, and whether that was a good idea that we ought to copy or God being gracious with a man teetering on the edge of unbelief.

There’s Jephthah’s rash vow to the Lord and subsequent having to sacrifice his own daughter.

There’s practically the entire story of Samson.

And there’s Ehud.

A story about a left-handed man in a day and age where that was considered a disability and an evil omen. A story containing a king so morbidly obese that his body can swallow a short sword and have the fat close in around it. A story containing concealed weapons, probable duplicitousness, armed insurrection and the use of assassination as a tool to accomplish God’s will.

It’s not a part of the Bible that’s guaranteed to sit very comfortably in most of our theology.

The story of Ehud almost opens the book of Judges, following on from the opening couple of chapters, which serve as a sort of overview and introduction to the book, and the little vignette on Othniel, Caleb’s nephew. In what will become a litany of disappointment throughout the book, “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord”, worshipping and serving the Ba’als, so God allowed them to be overpowered and conquered by the neighbouring people, the Moabites.

At this distance, it’s not easy to understand why Israel would so quickly forsake the God who had led them through the wilderness and given them the Land of Promise. Our modern theistic or post-theistic mindset is vastly different from the way that Bronze Age minds conceived of things.

Apart from Israel, every nation or people in the world was basically tribal and pagan. The gods you worshipped were the gods of the tribe, and there wasn’t really much if any sense that they were gods for all peoples. Moreover, and more importantly for our present consideration, the gods were limited in scope with specific purviews, and you worshipped or sacrificed to each god or goddess as appropriate to your situation.

Your tribe’s gods were the ones that were relevant to your way of life: nomads had gods that dealt with livestock and warfare, while farmers had gods that made crops grow and controlled the rains. If your tribe’s lifestyle changed, for example Israel transitioning from nomadic wandering in the wilderness to cultivating the Promised Land, you got new gods, usually from the people around you whose lifestyle you were adopting.

Israel in the period of the Judges is thus behaving exactly like the tribal Bronze Age nation that they were. YHWH was a god of shepherds, mountains and battle; what did He know about growing crops? Better go to an experienced god for those concerns, like the Ba’al we have over here in Canaan…

These days, I guess we might need to explain why worship of the Ba’als was so wrong. From a cretain perspective it just looks like a needless prohibition generated by Israel’s megalomaniacal God. “You can’t worship anyone else except Me, so there!” Just saying “But Ba’al was a false god” only works if you accept the foundational premise that there’s only one God who is to be worshipped. These days there’s enough second-guessing of God and His ways that a bit more explanation might be in order.

Ba’al was a kind of Canaanite version of the Greek Zeus: god of storms and rain, wielder of the lightning, and because rain is utterly necessary for agriculture in that part of the world, a god of the fecundity of the soil and the growing of crops.

His consort Ashtoreth (or sometimes Asherah) was a goddess of the earth, and of fertility in all its forms. She was considered to be responsible for not only the plants of the field but human babies and sex. Rain was the sky god Ba’al impregnating the earth goddess Ashtoreth to make the crops grow. The “Asherah poles” mentioned in the Bible were probably carved giant wooden phalluses, lending a pornographic quality to Canaanite worship. Even the sowing of seed was a sort of ceremonial impregnation of the earth goddess. Human sex was a sort of participation in the fertility of the gods.

That’s right: if you were a Ba’al worshipper, you grew up completely surrounded by the idea of sex. A lot like the modern Western world, in some ways.

Ba’al worship has been characterised as a sort of orgy, with temples filled with what were in effect licenced sacred prostitutes who functioned as sex objects for the worshipping men.

To the often-fallacious thinking of lowest-common-denominator masculinity, this sounds like a great idea. Sex as worship? Bring it on!

To a woman, however, or to a man who doesn’t use their genitals to think with, the idea is pretty repugnant. I bet the women involved never got much say in whether they were “chosen by the gods” to be made into whores, and once they were, I’m sure they had little choice in who they had to let slake their lust upon their bodies.

In essence, it puts divine imprimatur on the practice of sex trafficking and makes women into passive objects of lust without say or choice in their lives.

This is categorically wrong.

The Moabite chief god Chemosh was, if I’m recalling correctly, more or less Ba’al under a different name. The enemy isn’t all that creative, and he tends to use the same deceptions over and over again if he can make them work once.

It’s interesting to note that the fact that the Moabites were the oppressors and enemies in this time period doesn’t necessarily mean that all Moabites were unremittingly evil. Several generations later a famous Moabite woman would leave her home and her people and their gods and become the great-grandmother of the most celebrated Israelite king of them all: King David. Ruth of Moab is in the human genealogy of Jesus.

But here, it’s the Moabites into whose power God places His people in order to try and get their attention. The Moabites were the descendents of one of Lot’s daughters; their eponymous ancestor was sired by her own father after his escape from the destruction of Sodom. As a founding mythology, it’s hardly the most morally upright thing one could wish for.

Moab is led by the grossly fat King Eglon, recorded proof of the depths to which some sybaritic rulers of past ages could sink.

In an age in which getting enough calories and nutrition to survive and maintain some degree of health was a constant challenge for the majority, Eglon was morbidly obese. Conspicuous consumption was only possible if you were obscenely wealthy, and so many of the obscenely wealthy treated it as a badge of how wealthy they were. There’s a reason gout used to be a rich man’s disease.

No doubt the Israelites, as a conquered people, would have borne the brunt of King Eglon’s rapine. All the wealth of the land that God had intended be divided up among His people with egality now went to feed a fat foreign overlord. The Moabite rule is so cruel and oppressive that Israel cries out to the Lord.

Was this a genuine return to the Lord, or just a pagan-like idea that YHWH was a God of battles, and only a God of battles could save them now? I don’t know. If judging whether someone else is a believer or not is a chancy and dangerous thing that Scripture warns us against, judging the sincerity of a nation’s repentance is nothing we want to have any part of. If it was real repentance, however, it seems to have been short-lived; the crisis over, we are told in the next chapter that “again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…”

King Eglon persuades the Ammonites and the Amalekites to join him in attacking Israel. The Ammonites were the descendents of Lot’s other daughter, conceived in similar circumstances, and the Amalekites were descendents of Esau via one of his son’s concubines. Both peoples show up again and again among Israel’s enemies, and Amalek in particular had a history of attacking the Israelites without apparent cause. Together, they take control of the Jericho area and force Israel to pay tribute.

Enter the deliverer, Ehud son of Gera from the tribe of Benjamin. Described by the Bible as “a left-handed man”, we are told that in those days being a sinistral was considered so unnatural and evil that the only way you could realistically grow to adulthood as a lefty was if your right hand was maimed.

We’re not told anything more of his background or calling. We have no idea how God made it clear to this unlikely fellow that he, Ehud, was the chosen deliverer from the power of King Eglon.

We do know that he’d apparently spent some time preparing for his role. Making a sword, even a small one only a foot and a half long, was not something that you did overnight.

Given the Philistines’ apparent monopoly on iron-working in the time of Saul and Jonathan, we’re talking about bronze swordmaking here.

Bronze is expensive and not all that easy to work, particularly not for the quality of bronze you need for swords. It’s a combination of copper, which was plentiful and relatively cheap, and tin, which was neither of those things. The world’s first strategic mineral, tin was mineable in worthwhile quantity in only a few locations in the ancient world. If you controlled a tin mine, your wealth was assured.

The two metals had to be smelted from their ores and mixed together in the right quantity – about 10 parts copper to 1 part tin. Then the molten bronze had to be poured carefully into a specially-prepared mould, tapped to remove air bubbles, and allowed to cool and harden. Then the mould was broken and the sword pulled out. For common household bronze implements, a mould of clay was sufficient, but for edged weapons, what was used for the mould was stone. Incidentally, this may be the basis of a certain legendary British sword.

All of this takes time, patience and knowledge: the preparing of the mould, carefully carving two identical sword halves in the two parts of the stone mould, the gathering of the ore, the smelting, the pouring, the tapping to get the air bubbles out. It’s not something some proto-redneck can knock together in their garage over the course of a weekend. Perhaps Ehud was a metalworker by trade. Or perhaps he first had to learn the skills.

Wherever he came from, the Scripture tells us that he had made this sword and that he wore it strapped to his right thigh under his robes. Because practically everyone else was right-handed, and the natural way of drawing a sword is across the body, the natural place for a left-hander to wear a sword is on the right, exactly opposite from the expected place on the left.

Either way, walking naturally with a sharp slab of metal a foot and a half long strapped to your thigh takes practice.

Ehud is sent with the tribute to King Eglon. Often these sorts of tributes were an annual thing; every year the best of the best was gathered up and sent to the foreign overlord.

King Eglon is Ehud’s target, and presumably well-chosen. The Bible paints him as a powerful local ruler, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that he was the linchpin of the three-way alliance of Moab, Ammon and Amalek that were despoiling Israel.

Because of the politics of the situation, those sent with the tribute were usually picked for their ability to not rile the dangerous foreign monarch. Not only did they have to offer up what ought to have been theirs, but they had to put up with all of the king’s court and army sneering and spitting at them as conquered foreign weaklings. And do it all with a smile on their face. If the overlord decided the natives were getting uppity or restless, he could easily send out his army to go and level a few towns and offer up all the inhabitants to Chemosh. Ehud would have had to have kept his intentions, and probably the existence of the sword, secret enough to get to be part of the delegation sent with the tribute.

This doesn’t look to me as though it was a coordinated and subtle plan on the part of Israel as a whole – if it were, someone other than a left-handed cripple would have chosen themselves for the honour of striking down the enemy king, and Ehud would not have waited until the people actually carrying the tribute had left before carrying out the execution. They would have been in on it too. No, Ehud looks and behaves like he’s acting on his own, humanly speaking. He waits until the tribute-bearers are safely away, then turns back to the king with a “secret message”.

It’s here in the story that we begin to run into real difficulties.

A foot and a half of cold bronze isn’t much of a “secret message”, objectively speaking. It’s hardly the most straightforward way of speaking, though you could technically argue that the sword was hidden, thus “secret”, and a “message” of Divine judgement. A pointed one, we might say.

Still, it looks like he’s lying. And doing so with God’s apparent blessing, what’s more. What’s up with that?

It’s not the only time in the Bible that people get blessed for apparent duplicity, either. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac in order to circumvent his determination to give the inheritance blessing to the wrong son. The Hebrew midwives were at least misleading to Pharaoh when they claimed that “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women; they give birth before the midwives get there”, and it looks like outright lies to me. Jael, a chapter later in the book of Judges, may have acted duplicitously in inviting Sisera into her tent. The Magi “outwitted” or “deceived” King Herod by going back on their promise to return with tidings of where the boy was – an offence often treated as the same as lying by the ancients.

I don’t have any answers for this one. We don’t like it because it seems to trample all over Biblical morality with regard to honesty, integrity and telling the truth, and yet there it is in the pages of Scripture. Apparently real life may sometimes be more complicated than we’d like.

Then there’s the deed itself, which might even be worse.

The NIV is particularly unclear, giving you those unhelpful but honest footnotes to tell you that “the meaning of this word or phrase in Hebrew is unclear”, but what the consensus among commentators appears to be is that King Eglon ordered all his courtiers to leave him before going into the inner room of his palace to relieve himself while he heard the secret message.

Then Ehud stabs him (and Eglon is so grossly fat that when the sword point comes out of his back, the fat closes over the hilt), sneaks out, locks the door and makes his getaway. After waiting “to the point of embarrassment”, the courtiers unlock the door and find their lord dead.

I have numerous questions about this passage. Firstly, what is a toilet doing right in the middle of a palace, when a Bronze Age toilet is at best a latrine? It’s not like they had modern water-economy flushing porcelain back then; a toilet was frequently a hole over the pig pen, or out over the street, or at best a pit-type latrine. Putting any of those inside a regular dwelling, much less a palace, is a recipe for stench. It’s possible, of course, that the “toilet” was a portable bucket that some luckless slave had to take and empty, but given the Law’s instruction on toilet hygiene (go outside the camp and dig a hole), the fact that Eglon didn’t do that may have been a calculated insult to the conquered Hebrews. “I care so little for you and your Law that I’m going to break it right in front of you in the smelliest and most obnoxious way possible”. Of course, it’s also possible that Eglon was just so inured to it that he simply didn’t notice or care that his palace smelled like a cesspit.

This is small fry, however, compared with the question of Ehud’s deed.

By any normal rules, this is a calculated assassination. A political murder done as an act of war. If it were done today, we’d call it an act of terrorism. If God called us to perform something like this today, I hope we’d take a really hard look at whose voice we were really listening to.

It’s bloody, violent, sneaky and underhanded. The act of assassination is widely viewed as an intrinsically dishonourable act. We’d be apt to use words like “weasel” for the perpetrator. At the least, it would be against the laws of God, and I can’t imagine a single mainstream church leader praising it as an act of faith.

Yet here it is in the Bible in exactly those terms.

What’s up with that?

I’m aware that there’s a difference between the Old and New Testaments in the way God deals with the human race. I’m aware that the first Covenant is with Israel, and this was an act done in defence of God’s Covenant people.

But is He or is He not the same God now as He was then? We uphold the truth today as Biblically self-evident that God loves all people regardless of race or ethnicity. It’s not just about Israel, and because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, we believe that it never has been just about Israel.

But that begs the question of what we are to make of this dread deed. If God really cares not just for Israel but for all peoples, and He does, doesn’t it undermine the case for “defence of Israel” being an excusing factor?

We’d be far more ok with the story, I suspect, if Ehud had done some ninja-like feat of sneaking into Eglon’s palace and then killed him in single combat. But no. He probably lies to his own people in order to be the one chosen to go with the tribute, then he deceives the Moabite guards by carrying a sword under his clothes in an unexpected location, then he lies to Eglon directly about having a secret message, then he stabs him in the belly while the guy is on the potty.

The idea that we serve a God who’s ok with the idea of assassination in certain circumstances is guaranteed not to sit well with many of us.

Of course, placed in context in the rest of the book of Judges, it’s merely the first in a long line of God using flawed and fallen individuals to save His people and carry out His will. Gideon made an ephod (a priest’s breastpiece) that his whole family turned into an idol, and this despite being from Manasseh and thus excluded from the priesthood. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt offering. Samson seemed to go out of his way to break God’s laws, and seemingly thrived on the idea of revenge.

Is it simply that Ehud is doing God’s work but not precisely in God’s way? If so, the Scripture isn’t very clear about it. You virtually have to read that into the passage, and once you start reading things into Scripture, you’re heading for a world of trouble.

That, of course, is one of the main difficulties with the book of Judges. Here are all these great adventuresome stories of heroes of the faith, told in plain, “this is what happened” terms. But once we start to take a look at them we notice all sorts of things that make us uncomfortable (like Jephthah’s daughter) and those, too, are told in the same “this is what happened” way. The writers of the book of Judges didn’t moralise about the stories they recorded, and though sometimes that can be frustrating, I’d have to say that at times it beats the alternative. One of my main objections to Christian TV is the way they always want to drive the point home with a sledgehammer. According to the writers of Judges, apparently we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth here in this passage as well.

Still, we’re sometimes left with more questions than answers, and this appears to be one of those times. As I’ve said recently, this isn’t necessarily a problem. God is still good, and the truth is big enough to handle my questions and difficulties. Even apparently insoluble ones.

“I Cannot Go In These”

I’m currently breaking in a new pair of work boots.

The thing about work boots, of course, is that they’re usually really uncomfortable when they’re brand new. The leather hasn’t yet properly stretched and moulded to the precise shape of your feet, and so they rub on the heels, or pinch your toes a little bit. Trying to put your feet through the fairly intense workout mine get of tramping all over about a square mile’s worth of rough ground on a jobsite (hard rough ground, too, at the moment; the site is practically all solid rock) for a whole day with a brand-new pair of work boots is a recipe for blisters.

You have to wear them in gradually; a couple of hours at first, half a day, as long as your feet can stand them without getting damaged, so that the leather can start to fit itself to your feet and your feet can get used to the shoe. In some cases you have to wear them around the house just for sitting in a chair for a day or so. Depending on how much you wear work boots, you might have to keep this up for a week, two weeks, a month.

The alternative of getting work boots that you can wear immediately without them rubbing your feet is actually worse, because as you continue to wear them, the leather will inevitably stretch and you’ll end up with boots that rub holes in your feet all the time, rather than just for a week or two at the start.

I bring this up because it rather put me in mind of David going out to fight Goliath. King Saul tried to dress David in his own armour, which was an incredibly high honour. Later in the time of Esther, King Xerxes would honour Mordecai by dressing him in a royal robe and seating him on a horse that the king had ridden.

But David straps on his sword over his armour and tries walking around, then says “I cannot go in these; I am not used to them”.

Much has been written about this, about how it shows David’s refusal to trust in physical might and armour, how it shows a heart unlike that of Saul, who feared the people and was concerned with outward appearances.

This is all great sermon material, but in my new work boots, I’m much more put in mind of the second part of his statement. “I am not used to these”.

There’s nothing wrong with armour per se. Jonathan would later dress David in his own princely armour, probably an expensive coat of overlapping hard bronze scales, both protective and flexible. David is not recorded as refusing that kingly gift; it’s not that it would have been intrinsifcally wrong to wear armour.

Whether the problem was that it was Saul‘s armour is another question, but David is always respectful in his dealings with the king he had been anointed to replace, and I just can’t see him turning his nose up at this honour and expression of royal imprimatur on David as the Israelite champion just because “eww! Some sinner has been in this!”

From a practical point of view, David isn’t used to armour. It’s like a pair of new work boots, only all over the body. If you’re not accustomed to it, it will rub over here, chafe over there and generally hurt. Knights in the Middle Ages wore padded undercoats to protect them from the chafing of their armour, and they were fully accustomed to wearing it. Furthermore, armour is heavy. A Mediæval foot armour weighed between 50 and 70 kilograms, and bronze is heavier than iron for the same volume of metal. Clanking around in a long coat made out of heavy metal scales isn’t easy to do when all you have to do is walk around. If you actually have to fight for your life, that sort of encumberance is only helpful once you’re used to it.

There’s something to be said for the tried and true, for that which we’re used to, for the comfortable. It’s been said that a good sermon should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; we can often go from there to the idea that God wants us to be uncomfortable. That whatever He’s calling us to will chafe us. That it will be difficult and painful, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. That it won’t be anything we’re used to.

This sort of low-level sadism on God’s part is nothing like the loving Father we find in the pages of Scripture. Yes, sometimes what He calls us to do does not come naturally: it’s only through the Holy Spirit that we can put aside the desire for vengeance and forgive someone who hurt us. Yes, sometimes what He calls us to will be unlike anything we’ve done before, and something we need to inure our metaphorical feet to wearing. But His calling is not to a place of permanent discomfort.

On the contrary, Jesus said “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light”.

Rest, easy, light and gentle are not the words of one who wants us to be uncomfortable.

Lately there’s been a lot of focus in our churches on “moving out of our comfort zones”. The Hillsongs worship song Oceans takes the imagery of Christ’s invitation to Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water to Him and turns it to a song about God’s invitation to move out of our comfort zone, out on the waters “where feet may fail”. Trusting God does sometimes lead us into situations where the ground seems to be shifting like water underfoot and where the only constancy is the Master walking beside us.  But if this is our primary image of what it means to follow Christ, if God is always “out there” in the storm, on the uncomfortable shifting waters, we may be going beyond where the Bible does.

It’s like what a wise friend once said about finding God’s plan for your life: “If you’re 4′-2”, God probably isn’t calling you to be a basketball player”.

When we’re trying to make something work in our own strength, it’s hard. It’s a burden, a labour, something you strive at. It’s death-bringing, not life-giving.

When we’re doing what we’re called to, it’s a place of ease and rest. Not that there aren’t difficulties or problems, but that there’s an ease, a refreshment in the doing. It’s life and peace.

There are probably people doing missionary work or being preachers or any other “Christian service” who are trying to do it in their own strength and finding it to be chafing. Likewise, there may be people who are called to those things who are finding work as a banker or a construction worker to be a labour of death.

The bottom line is that God is a lot less concerned about what precisely we are doing with our lives than He is about whether we’re doing it in the obedience of faith or not.

As it is written, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all to the glory of God the Father”.

Transatlantic Football

As a rule I’m not that into sports, so today’s post is a weird departure even for someone who revels in weird departures. But it occurred to me that I’ve had a lot of fairly heavy and sometimes quite negative posts lately, and something light-hearted and basically irrelevant might be in order. So here it is.

On Sunday the American National Football League played its third of three games this season at Wembley Stadium, with the Jacksonville Jaguars “hosting” the Dallas Cowboys. I enjoy watching American-type football, though I’m far less fanatical about it than most and I have little invested in particular team fandom. I do enjoy watching a good game, though.

Back when I was watching American football in the UK with my Dad in the ’80s, they would show one game a week on a Sunday afternoon. It’s difficult to pick a team to “support” when they’re all thousands of miles away and you get to see a different two teams playing each week in the single televised game, but back then I decided, more or less based on helmet design and team name, that I was going to like the Seahawks. Yeah, I liked the Seahawks when they were crap.

Even nine years of living in the heart of Cowboys country hasn’t quite erased that juvenile decision (though I do basically like the Cowboys as well), and it pleased me quite a lot to see Seattle win their first Superbowl last year.

I guess my subconscious was quite attached to the idea of American football being played in London, because in the middle of last week (ie before the actual game) I had a dream of a London-based NFL team trouncing the Dallas Cowboys.

You can take the Brit out of Britain, but you can’t take the Britain out of the Brit. Even if most of my countrymen would consider it the Wrong Sort of Football.

The idea of a London NFL team isn’t new. The idea gets floated every so often; they had the whole NFL Europe developmental league back in the ’90s and 2000s, but people proved not especially interested in coming to watch unimportant matches of a game they barely understood, and the league folded.

Is the world now ready for an NFL expansion into Europe? I mean the real NFL, not that third-tier development league nonsense.

I don’t know. Still, as a Brit that likes American-type football, it’s a lot of fun to speculate.

There are, of course, massive logistical problems involved with hosting a team out of a city that’s at least 10 hours from Dallas by air. Heaven help the Seahawks and the 49ers flying in.

Still, with a little will, most of these problems are solvable. Whether the will can be mustered is another thing entirely.

Home stadium issues are another problem. They’ve been hosting the three matches at Wembley Stadium, which is huge and has a prestige all of its own. But I hear the English Premiership isn’t all that pleased about the NFL’s gorillas tearing up the pitch at the national stadium, and you don’t want to imagine the outcry if we have to use the stadium for an international soccer football match right after an NFL game and an England player trips and injures themselves. Not good.

Still, I’m sure something could be worked out somehow, with enough will and money.

I’ve been out of the UK long enough now that I have no idea about potential fan base, but I hear the NFL has set itself the goal of becoming the fourth most popular sport in Britain. It’ll never displace people actually kicking a ball with their feet in the national consciousness, but good luck to them. Americans seem to be learning to love soccer football; it would be fair to reciprocate with their big game. And at any rate, it’s far more exciting than golf.

But one of the big challenges is the expansion itself. There are currently 32 teams split into 2 conferences (sub-leagues, effectively) with 4 geographically-based divisions in each. In order to ensure that divisions remain evenly numbered, you’d end up having to potentially add up to eight new NFL teams at once. It could be done; Los Angeles still doesn’t have a football team, and I’m sure there are other cities that would like a chance to showcase themselves on the stage of the NFL.

It would be difficult, but difficult is not the same as impossible. And if they could establish several European NFL teams at once, it might go some way to easing the logistical headaches of competing. US-based teams could go on a sort of “European tour”, playing several away games in a row against the various European teams. It would be unusual, but doable.

The fun part, of course, is speculating on team names.

The London Monarchs were the old NFL Europe team, and it would be the obvious name to bring back. But let’s see if we can avoid that disastrously ugly purple and gold uniform colour combination that I remember (but can’t now find pictures of) this time around, eh?

The London Royals has also been floated as a possibility. Presumably you’d have a crown-based team emblem and royal blue as a base colour for the uniform. They might end up looking like Chelsea Football Club in armour, rather like the Australian rugby squad look like Norwich City. Not the worst thing in the world, but I can hear the locals’ teasing now.

But I have some other ideas.

The London Knights would work. Positive chivalric and fierce resonance, olde worlde connotations and a sly underhanded reference to Shanghai Knights. And as a fan of the idea of knighthood, I’m predisposed to like this name.

If they wanted to go with an animal name, they’d have to be the London Bulldogs, seeing as how Detroit already has the Lions. And it would rather lend itself to Union Jack-inspired helmets with a pugnacious cartoon bulldog on them.

The London Werewolves would be an amusing twist on An American Werewolf in London (“this time it’s London Werewolves in America”), but one version of the Oakland Raiders’ skull-based halloween theme is quite enough in my world. So perhaps not.

But I think in some ways my favourite idea would be to name them the London Redcoats. Ok, it’s rather a slap-in-the-face sort of a name and might create a sort of pariah status in the rest of the league. But let’s face it, if they ever exist, whatever the London team is called, they are going to be the butt of Paul Revere jokes wherever they go. So why not embrace it? You could have a team emblem of a red-jacketed Victorian-era infantryman with a handlebar moustache charging forward with football and rifle. And best of all, you could make the team uniforms recall those of the Grenadier Guards: scarlet shirt with white numbers outlined in gold, black trousers with a red stripe down the outside, and black helmets painted to look furry like a Guards’ bearskin. Or am I the only one who thinks that would be awesome?

You’d also have a ready-made natural team rivalry with the New England Patriots: who wouldn’t like to watch the Patriots versus the Redcoats? I’d pay to go and see that one.

The NFL’s apparently talking more seriously than usual about the idea, and the incremental approach they’ve been taking (hosting an increasing but limited numbers of games over there each season) seems to have paid off so far. I may yet live to see a London-based NFL team trounce the Cowboys.

Still, it hasn’t happened yet. Cowboys fans can breathe easy. The British aren’t coming just yet.

Acts of Remembrance

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them”.

As a child, I seldom had much time for the annual acts of remembrance on the 11th November. It was all pretty far off from where I sat in a high school hall, trying to keep my mind from wandering during the minute’s silence.

It wasn’t that I thought we were doing anything bad, per se. I just didn’t really see all that much point. It didn’t really touch me on a personal level; most kids think on a subconscious level that they are immortal, and my family hadn’t lost anyone in the War.  At least, not anyone I knew about.  World War Two, of course, was “the War”, still, and it was far enough back that it happened before my grandparents married.

We had lists of names up in our high school hall of the boys who had been students that had gone on to serve and give their lives in the two great wars. Once or twice I think they might have even read them out, but they weren’t anyone I knew anything about. For all the connection it all made with me, they could have picked a random page of the phone book. I didn’t get it.

Oh, if pushed I’d probably have admitted that it was a good thing to honour the sacrifices of those who’d given their all in defence of our nation and way of life, but I didn’t have any real concept of what it meant to be a soldier or sailor at war, with the very real possibility of losing one’s life.

Both of my grandfathers were in the Royal Navy in World War Two, and one of my grandmothers was a Wren (Women’s Royal Navy, for the less well-informed). But they were still alive and intact, and none of them talked about their wartime service very much at all. Ever.

It’s only now, years later, that Grandad has actually had his campaign medals mounted so they can be worn, and begun to record some of the stories so they won’t be forgotten.

I don’t think if I’d been brought up in America I’d have been allowed to not really get the idea of remembrance like I did, but America is better at public displays of pride in and affection for its military than Britain is in a lot of ways. Back at Memorial Day I posted about some of the differences between a British Remembrance Day and an American Memorial Day, and I don’t want to rehash that ground now.

All I want to say is that I get it now, and I’m glad we did it, even if I didn’t think all that much of it at the time.

We remember those who made the final sacrifice because they aren’t here with us and their posterity was cut off. We remember them not as a list of strange and funny names, but as the living, breathing human beings they once were. People like us, with families and schools and friends.

We remember their courage in stepping up to serve their country as an example for us, so that should the situation require it of us, we know in whose tradition we stand.

We remember their sacrifice, because by doing so we count the real cost of war, paid in blood as its only currency, because in war people do die, and yet there are some things that are worth fighting for anyway.