In Search of Community

Occasionally on here I reference my other blog and the fact that I’m one of those adults who build LEGO.

I’d be disappointed to be personally compared to the dad in The LEGO Movie; I hope I’m more easy-going and a better parent than that, but at least LEGO Movie Dad makes the point (however badly) that there are adults who ignore the recommended age guidelines and do LEGO.

Really, it’s a lot less silly than painting yourself blue and traipsing off to a football game, and adults do that all the time.

But this isn’t so much about my personal apologia for my main hobby as it is about community.

But LEGO is involved.

For a while, ever since I rediscovered my love of my favourite childhood toy as an adult, I’ve felt somewhat isolated from the main online community of other Adult Fans Of LEGO, or AFOLs, as we get called. This wasn’t by design, but a combination of ignorance, personal hangups, limited available time to invest in an online presence, and technical difficulties. I’ve still never been able to make MOCPages, the most well-known online hangout of the AFOL (the MOC stands for “My Own Creation” and means a build that you didn’t follow any instructions to put together), work for posting my creation pictures, and so I gave up.

I have a LEGO blog, but blogs in the LEGO world aren’t really that good a way of connecting. They’re great for talking about your builds, but they don’t tend to get that much traffic by comparison to other, more primarily visual media.

It’s felt like I’m over here doing my building thing in isolation, and somewhere over there there’s a whole networked, interlinked community that I’m barely even aware of the edges of and who have no clue that I even exist.

My insecurity pipes up “and why should they know about you? It’s not as if you’re anything special!” at this point, and I have to go away and strangle it with who I am in Christ.

Like with following Jesus, LEGO building has never been a completely lone endeavour. Girls are traditionally thought to be better at it than boys (this is clearly shown in the old joke that if you put two girls down with a load of LEGO bricks, two hours later they’ll have built half a house together and will know the most intimate details of one another’s lives; whereas two boys won’t even know each other’s names but they’ll have built eighteen spaceships each and be having a war) but even boys do build together, and it’s not nearly as fun without anyone to show your stuff to.

Community. It’s important for LEGO; it’s vital for following Jesus.

This past week I discovered what’s known as a local LEGO User’s Group, or LUG. My sister-in-law thinks this name makes it sound like a twelve-step program, but other than being amusing that’s neither here nor there. I’m going to meet them on Saturday – taking a day off to go and be nerdy – and I’m excited and nervous.

I’m excited because I finally get to meet up with other adults who are hopefully like me. I’m nervous because I’ve never felt like I was any good at the whole meeting-people-making-friends thing and I have a list of hangups as long as your arm.

As humans, though, we are made for community. As the Scripture puts it, “it is not good for the man to be alone”. This is the first thing in the entire Bible that’s described as being “not good”, and the only thng before the Fall to be so characterised. We need one another. We need companions, friends, community. What Christians of a certain generation call “fellowship”, back when that was the buzzword.

This is the usual main argument for why you need to be a part of a church, of course. One can’t go it alone.

But even being part of a church is not necessarily a guarantor of fellowship, sadly. It’s only too easy to slip into formulaic, empty responses to “how are you?” inquiries from those the Scripture calls our brothers and sisters, or to hide one’s true self because we’re embarrassed or ashamed or we think other people don’t want to know the real us. Our habits keep us apart sometimes even when we’re together, and we all sit, slowly dying, in our self-erected prisons of isolation.

Contemplating my first nervous venture into the deep unknowns of the adult LEGO building community, I’m struck by a suspicion that I’ve been all too guilty of hiding myself away from my brothers and sisters.

I’m an introvert, I excuse myself. I’ve never been able to make friends easily. I get befriended; I don’t make friends myself. I hate small talk. I’m just no good at this.

And yet I crave the very community I push away out of fear and hangups, clueless about how to get beyond “How about them Cowboys?” and feeling worse than useless at that level of conversational gambit. I’ve never been much of a sports fan, I have no real connection to or interest in many of the traditional Texan male conversation-starters (like hunting, mechanics or guns) and the hobbies I do have get looked on as weird.

Give me something real to talk about, and I’ll talk without fear for as long as I have something to say. But my difficulty with friendship evangelism has always been the friendship part rather than the evangelism part, and I’m not really all that much better at forging relationship connections with believers.

Hopefully meeting some adult LEGO fans will help to kickstart my paltry ability to connect with others. I’m honestly not trying to be a hermit. I recognise that I need friendship and fellowship from others. I get it that small talk is vital for those first stages of forming friendships. I’m just feeling deeply incapable when it comes to actually making it happen, and I don’t like feeling incapable.

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Attitude of Gratitude

Having spent the last couple of weeks at work having to deal with a new hire who seems to have cornered the market on griping and complaining, I feel a strong need to blog on some positive, uplifting topic.

I don’t want to bad-mouth anyone unnecessarily, but honestly, this guy could complain for his country at international competition level.

Thankfulness being the opposite of moaning and complaining, I thought I’d get a head start on Thanksgiving and write something with a theme of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Gratitude isn’t the easiest subject to talk about. It’s a virtue which is almost entirely found in its expression, but actually talking about it isn’t easy. There’s not that much to say.

Linguistically, the word “gratitude” is related to the word “grace”. This makes sense, because gratitude is both an expression of and a response to grace.

Grace itself is a linguistic cognate of our word gratis, meaning free, not to be paid for. Again, this is entirely appropriate. Gratitude is the appropriate response to getting something gratis, and a thankful attitude sets us free from the heaviness of a negative, bitter, complaining spirit.

It was largely the negative, complaining spirit of the Israelites that got them into so much trouble in their wanderings in the wilderness: complaining about not having water, then complaining that the water was bitter, then complaining that there was no food, then complaining about the miraculous honey-flavoured manna that God provided day after day, then complaining that the promised land was full of giants, then finally complaining the lie that the good land of promise wasn’t good at all.

An attitude of complaint focuses on the problem, and on self. This sucks. If only this were different. I don’t like it. I deserve better. Moan moan whine whine.

Gratitude is the opposite because it takes our eyes off of ourselves and how bad we have it and our poor-little-me pity party, and refocuses them on a good God and what He’s done for us. Even on a human level, it’s changing the focus from what’s been done to you to what’s been done for you. There is reason for happiness, and it’s because someone else has done something. I am not the sole architect of my happiness in a hostile world that’s out to get me.

Gratitude is intrinsically other-centred. Gratitude to God is intrinsically theocentric. It’s hard to maintain a self-centred attitude if you are looking for ways to express thankfulness. It requires a mindset that says “God has done something wonderful for me”.

In searching for reasons for gratitude, I begin at the Cross. My Saviour gave His life for me, affirming my value as a child of God created in His image and setting me free from sin and death. He has made me righteous in His sight, rescued me from the power of the evil one and caused His Spirit to dwell within me. Seriously, how cool is that?

I have a wonderful, beautiful wife whom I love dearly and who has the incredible but strange taste to fall deeply in love with me. I have three awesome, clever, powerful kids.

Unlike many in this country I have a job. I have a roof over my head – and I actually own it, too – and food on the table.

I live in a country in which no-one is restricting my freedom or denying me access to government services or throwing stones at my children because of what I believe. I can openly worship the Lord Jesus Christ without fear or sanction.

I’m healthy – again, unlike many in this country. I’m not on medication for diabetes or heart arrhythmia or obesity or anything. I don’t have any chronic health issues.

Truly I have much to be thankful for.

Counting my blessings is only half of thankfulness, though. The other half is the recognition that Someone did this. I didn’t build this life and array of blessings with my own two hands; it was given to me. On my own I can’t even turn one hair of my head black or white, nor more critically can I stop them falling out. God did all this for me. He’s the Author of life generally, but in the specific He’s the Author of my life. He saved me when I couldn’t save myself, gave me the abilities and talents I now use to earn my bread, brought me to Himself and declared my worth by dying for me.

Thankfulness seems almost a small response somehow, but it’s really all that’s required. Life as a follower of Jesus is effectively, to quote the alien toys from Toy Story 2: “You have saved our lives, we are eternally grateful”.

All Other Ground

“On Christ the solid rock I stand,” the old hymn says. “All other ground is sinking sand / All other ground is sinking sand”.

This is standard Christian doctrine. No surprises here on that score. Indeed, it’s pretty much common to every belief system that theirs is the only way that’s fully true or correct. Muslims believe the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ are blasphemous assaults on the nature of God. Buddhists believe their Eightfold Path is the only correct way. Hindus are firmly convinced that their pantheistic understanding of the cosmos is the highest understanding of reality. Atheists believe it’s all a fairy tale and that if we had any true understanding we’d embrace the nonexistence of any and every god.

The common accusation that it’s arrogant to claim that we alone have the truth seems a bit moot under the circumstances. We all believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong or mistaken insofar as they disagree with us. We’re all “arrogant” in that sense. Christians are not exempt, but we’re not unique in that either.

I’ve talked quite a lot on this blog about the idea of finding common ground with people of other belief systems. Faiths as conceptually far apart as Christianity and Hinduism share in common at least the basic understanding that the material world is not all there is. A fellow Abrahamic faith like Islam is far closer to Biblical Christianity, even if Muslims hold several major points of doctrine that we believe to be erroneous or untrue.

And yet, “all other ground is sinking sand”.

Am I compromising on the exclusivity of Christ?

We don’t build our faith on the lyrics of hymns (no matter how good they are) but on Scripture, but this is an accurate distillation of the Bible’s teaching on the subject. The Bible really does teach that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and Mediator between holy God and fallen Man.

What that doesn’t mean is that everything anyone else believes is false in totality.

If nothing else, Satan’s too good a liar for that. No lie can hold up if it contradicts observable reality on all points. Even the most blatant, bald-faced lie has to hold enough truth be at least vaguely self-consistent, and when we’re talking about fundamental belief systems encompassing metaphysics and explanations for the observed reality, we must necessarily hold true to that observed reality on some level, even if that’s a claim that observed reality is ultimately illusory.

What the exclusivity of Christ does mean is that ultimately, none of these other belief systems is going to cut it.

Various politically-correct attempts to harmonise the different belief systems or say that they’re all “true for their followers” miss the point that Reality is what it is, and no matter how strongly we believe to the contrary or how true what we believe feels, if what we believe doesn’t line up with that Reality, then it’s actually false.

It’s all very well to make sweeping claims of how all religions are true, but we really do believe some vastly contradictory things as fundamental truths of our different faiths.

Hinduism accepts many gods. The “highest” (by their own thinking) form of Hinduism treats these many gods as fundamentally illusory, mere flawed manifestations of the impersonal cosmic All for limited minds to grasp. Jews and Muslims believe in one God who created the cosmos. Christians believe in one God, but He’s triune. Buddhists treat the question of whether there’s a God or not as basically irrelevant, but more or less piggyback on Hindu worldview the way Christians piggyback on a Jewish worldview.

But ultimately, Reality is what it is, and at most only one of these can match up with it.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, naturally I believe that what I believe is that which matches up with Reality best. I think there’s good evidence for both the existence of the God that the Bible describes and for the truth and accuracy of the Bible itself. I’m not going to open that massive and complex subject here; other people far more intelligent than I have examined all sorts of evidence at length, and the information’s out there if you’re sufficiently interested to track it down. It’s always possible we’re all mistaken in what we believe, I suppose, but as far as I can tell the evidence isn’t pointing that way.

But if the Way of Jesus really is true in the sense of matching up with how the cosmos actually really is, why am I so concerned to find common ground?

Followers of Christ have both a religious duty and a moral obligation to spread the word about what we believe. Not only are we commanded by our faith to do so, but if it’s true, if we’re correct in our belief of the truth of what we believe, lives really are at stake here. You may of course disagree, but if we believe lives are at stake and yet do nothing about it, doesn’t that constitute culpability?

A lot of the time we followers of Jesus certainly don’t act like we really believe that lives are at stake and that people who don’t believe are heading for an eternity cut off from the Source of all good, but that’s what necessarily follows from what we believe about the truth of our message.

But if “all other ground is sinking sand”, why look for truth in what they believe? Isn’t that sort of backwards?

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m faced with someone rudely saying that everything I believe is a falsehood, my instinct is to dismiss everything I’m hearing, argue and get angry. So I find I can’t really blame Muslims or Atheists or anyone else on the receiving end of this from sincere Christians wanting to fulfil their moral obligation to spread the word. No-one likes to be told they’re wrong, totally wrong.

But if we have a moral obligation to spread the good news about Jesus the Messiah, we have a corollary obligation to do so in a way that can be heard and received.

It’s not enough just to talk at people without knowing or caring where they come from or what they believe. What good is that, if people dismiss it out of hand? Especially if they might have actually accepted our message a bit if we’d have gone about our presentation a little differently.

I used to believe that evangelism, sharing the good news about Jesus, was scary and difficult. The Bible says the world’s default position is hostility to God, so I expected opposition, hostility and rejection. That’s scary stuff when you’re a teenager who already has a bit of a rejection complex. But I knew I was supposed to share the good news with everyone, and so every so often I’d guilt myself into doing some sort of “evangelism event”, deliberately going out to find targets for the Gospel.

Of course, it seldom worked very well. I’d end up with a bit of an adrenalin rush from actually going ahead and facing down my fear of rejection, but to this day I’m not sure how much good it actually did. I still hated and feared evangelism.

These days I believe that sharing the Good News is actually easy. Still a bit scary (Satan has a vested interest in making us afraid to tell others where the fire escape is) but actually easy.

Most people don’t want to be talked at by someone wanting to convince them that what they believe is the only truth, but most people are willing to talk about what they believe in. I look for common ground so I have some idea where to start. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet. The Holy Spirit can work with that; so do we. We believe He’s more than that as well, but let’s talk about Jesus’ prophethood and what being a prophet means and whether “prophet” alone encompasses all that Jesus is. Atheists believe the universe is rational and science can explain things. Great! So do we; let’s talk about the shape of the observed universe and whether undifferentiated chaos can organise itself, or whether the universe is moral or random, or whether what we believe determines what evidence we’ll accept, or something.

I’m happy to have a conversation about serious stuff. I always have been. My difficulty with the whole “evangelism” thing has always been that it feels false and disingenuous to start conversations with someone just to talk about what I believe.

What I believe isn’t the issue here. Let’s talk aboit what you believe.

I don’t ultimately believe that what a Muslim believes can go the distance between flawed mankind and perfect Godhead, but if talking with me is their first opportunity to actually talk with a follower of Jesus, it would be criminal to waste that by attacking their beliefs in a way that makes us look like the dangeous infidels they’ve always been told we are.

Whether or not (and in what way) Jesus is the Son of God may be too weighty a topic for a first conversation. Most Muslims I’ve actually talked to interpret that sort of language as us claiming Jesus is the son of God like Hercules was the son of Zeus, so they’re understandably put off by Christians’ apparent insistence on giving a blasphemous title to the one they consider sinless and one of their greatest prophets.

I’m not compromising on the exclusive claims of Christ. All other ground really is sinking sand. But I don’t believe it’s good enough to talk at other people in a way that virtually guarantees that they will misunderstand, either. We’re tasked with being communicators, and true communication requires understanding going both ways.

Because Jesus Christ really is the only Saviour.

Heart

“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart” -Colossians 3:21

It being Father’s Day, this verse was the text preached on at my church on Sunday. The NIV that I often use puts it differently: “exasperate” and “so that they do not become discouraged”, but I think I prefer the older language in some ways. Losing heart seems so much deeper and more profound than mere discouragement.

I started to think about the implications of this verse. The instruction is clear enough: don’t go out of your way to rile your kids. Be a Good Dad.

But the reasoning is interesting: “so that they do not lose heart”.

Discouragement and losing heart is so easy in this world. All around us there are attacks on our worth, our self-image, our value. Temptations to believe that only if we look or behave in a certain way are we valued and productive. We call a lot of these “advertising”, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.

No, what struck me on Sunday was the idea that a large part of a father’s role might be summarised as creating heart in your children.

If “losing heart” is more than just discouragement, building heart is more than just being an encourager as we normally think of it.

I sometimes believe that the spiritual gift of encouragement is the gift most misunderstood by all the various spiritual gift inventory questionnaires I’ve seen; to a one they all seem to envision a middle-aged woman whose gift finds expression in the sending of cards.

This isn’t very cool if you’re a young woman, and even less helpful if you’re a man. By and large, most men don’t express the gift in that prissy sort of a way, if they have the gift. In some cases it can lead to a lot of misapprehensions about encouragement and what it really is.

Creating heart might be a more useful way of expressing what I’m talking about; it has at least the advantage of not having any baggage of which I’m aware.

So what do I mean by “heart”?

Heart as I’m meaning it encompasses a number of different qualities, foremost among them courage, conviction, integrity, hope, fervour, compassion and faith. It’s a valorous blend of characteristics embodied in every true hero, a blend that enables them to slay the monsters, face down the odds, oppose the tyrant, stare death in the face and spit in his eye. It’s also the blend of qualities that reaches out with compassion and aims to make the world a better place, looking beyond oneself to others.

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

Courage has been described as “the first of qualities, because it guarantees all the others”. I’m not sure this isn’t going a little too far, but certainly courage is important, and a vital part of what I mean by “heart”. In the Colossians verse, losing heart is expressed in the NIV as “becoming discouraged”, and courage is at the heart of that word. Many spiritual virtues take courage: it takes courage to show faith, courage to love, courage to show compassion in a world where it’s thin on the ground. The quality is never listed in any Biblical list of spiritual fruit or character qualities, but perhaps that’s by design, because so much of the time we reduce courage to the physical exigencies of the battlefield and the toughness of mind and body that calls for, when much of what I’m talking about here is moral courage.

Conviction and faith are part of what I mean by heart, because unless you have your heart involved then your “faith” isn’t true Biblical faith at all, merely a sort of cold mental assent. Unlike believing in the Loch Ness Monster, simply acknowledging the existence of the Godhead isn’t enough if your life doesn’t change as a result. As a father, I pray that I’m raising my children to be men and women of conviction, knowing what’s right and pursuing it with vigour.

Integrity goes along with this, because heart encompasses the unification of the inner and outer person. It’s the opposite of wearing masks and hiding: knowing who you are as well as Whose you are, living out of your deep inner self with the courage not to hide and the conviction that there is a purpose for which you were created that will take all your God-given powers.

All of this takes Biblical hope. Not the wishy-washy vague feeling we’ve demeaned it into, but the strong certainty that God has plans and a future for me, to prosper me and not to harm me. That if His purpose takes my life, then it’s not the end, but in His economy some things are worth dying for.

Fervouris involved, because you can’t have all of these qualities and not live with passion. And compassion, because unless it’s directed outwards into the service of the Lord and the blessing of other people, what good is it all? No-one wants to be around a fervent, courage-filled person of conviction who hates other people.

A lofty task and a worthy goal, but how do we do this? I hope I’m building heart in my children, but I’m not always very intentional about it.

I guess it begins here, with this verse. Don’t provoke your children. Don’t exasperate them. Don’t aggravate them. Be reasonable, able to be reasoned with. When you have to lay down the law, do so with grace. Set the example you wish you’d had; everyone comes from an imperfect family and a father’s care that had holes in it, but you need not reproduce all of that.

At its most basic, building heart in your kids means not tearing it out of them. We fathers are often considered the disciplinarians, but correction needs to be delivered in a way that makes our kids want to get it right and which builds into them the ability to do so. That means not tearing into them for trifling offences, but it also means bringing correction when it’s due. Our kids aren’t perfect either, and we who might have had harsh parents need to be careful we aren’t becoming so permissive that our children have no boundaries at all.

Something it’s taken me a while to learn is that my kids respond to different things. One of them, physical discipline just makes her stubborn. If you want to get through to her, she needs to understand why. Another of them, the prospect of reward works wonders (ok, so I bribe my kids sometimes. It seems to work). As their father, I have to tailor my engagement with each of my children, knowing that what encourages one may exasperate another, and yet trying to be even-handed in my approach to them. Nothing poisons family relationships like favouritism (look at the book of Genesis); that would be provoking them.

I’m not trying to claim I’m there or that I do it perfectly, because I’m painfully aware of just how far I fall short. I hope I’m building heart in my kids more than I’m making them lose it, but I expect they’ll have their individual hangups from well-meaning mistakes I made. Hopefully none beyond the grace of God, though.

Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

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

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

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

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

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

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

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

Enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grant To Us Now Those Spiritual Graces…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we come to “thoughtful”.

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

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

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

I’ve listened to Christian radio.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til By Turning

Repentance isn’t normally viewed as a happy word.

It has associations of grief and tears, overtones of sorrow and abasement and owning up to your own crap. “I was wrong” is one of the hardest things in the world to say.

We don’t like it. I don’t like it. My ongoing life’s quest has been to be right; admitting that I wasn’t strikes directly at the core of that. And that’s what repentance is about.

The New Testament uses the Greek word metanoia, deriving from the roots nous, meaning mind or thoughts, and meta, meaning to change or to go beyond.

The Old Testament frequently couches calls to repent in the language of navigation: turn from your wicked ways and turn back to the Lord.

“Changing your thoughts” sounds better, but the essence is the same. You have to change your mind about what you did, stop justifying it to yourself, admit that you were in the wrong.

More, though: the examples of repentance we’re shown in the pages of Scripture are distinctly uncomfortable. Sackcloth and ashes feature prominently; the idea being to demonstrate the depth of your sorrow over what you had done by putting aside creature comforts and embracing discomfort and misery.

The purpose of the sackcloth and ashes was twofold. Firstly, it was a demonstration of seriousness. In a time in which the lives of common people were, to coin a phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”, sackcloth was itchy, uncomfortable, scratchy and common, and ashes were a regularly-encountered form of dirt. Taking off your smooth, comfortable clothes and putting away the cleanliness that only the rich could afford was a way of underlining the seriousness of what you were doing. Repentance isn’t something you can just mouth comfortable words over and then move along; if you’re going to take it seriously, you have to take it seriously. It’s not really something you can do at the same time that you’re stuffing your face with chocolate or watching your favourite film.

Secondly, the sackcloth and ashes provided a break from the normal routine that encouraged and abetted the sin you’re in the dock for. You had a continual reminder in the itchy clothes and feeling of being filthy that you weren’t going to live that way any more; that things were going to be different. It ought to be a positive thing, even in its discomfort.

The trouble is that in our humanness we too easily connect the symbols of internal spiritual realities with the realities themselves. Instead of being a symbolic act and aide-memoire, the act becomes a mortification of the flesh, a false, pagan idea that you can somehow appease the wrath of the God by inflicting upon yourself an amount of suffering equal to the offence.

Instead of being a process through which we change our minds to agree with God’s view of our behaviour and attitudes, in which new agreement we appeal to His mercy and receive His forgiveness as a free gift and an act of pure grace, repentance becomes a sort of sacrifice or payment by which we try to purchase God’s forgiveness.

We can get an idea that “that wasn’t real repentance; I didn’t feel sorry enough”. “I should have really felt how awful what I did was”. “If I suffer some, then God will have to forgive me”.

This isn’t repentance. At best it’s a mistaken idea that we really need to do something so we can get forgiven. Like Naaman, we get offended by the prophet’s simple remedy for our spiritual uncleanness. We think we should have to do some huge important task by which we can look big and important, a committer of big and important sins. Or not even that; part of us won’t believe it’s real if it wasn’t difficult. The simple truth of grace is offensive to us.

Metanoia communicates “changing of mind”. These days we use “I’ve changed my mind” very lightly and almost cavalierly, but the Greek word nous denotes the totality of your thoughts. You aren’t just changing your mind like you do when you decide to have chicken rather than beef for supper; you’re changing your basic, fundamental mental attitudes and decisions. The language of turning in the Old Testament communicates turning your back on something and walking away. You’re not going to continue in that old life any more.

The idea is that it’s a permanent change. A frog can’t unmetamorphose back into a tadpole; it’s unnatural. In the same way, it’s unnatural for someone who has genuinely come to repentance to revert. They have changed their minds, and the Lord has changed their heart. How can they go back again?

It happens, though, or appears to. I’m not in the place of God to know whether anyone’s repentance is or was genuine, but the implication is that if it’s real it will stick. People do fall away, people do genuinely come to repentance over a particular sin and then do it again from habit. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in danger of hellfire just because they relapsed back into an old habit, nor that they’re necessarily guaranteed entry to the Kingdom because they used to sort-of believe, once.

But the point is that repentance is a change. It’s no good mouthing the words of the Sinner’s Prayer if our life doesn’t change as a result. All that does is add a few meaningless words into your life, and what use is that?

The title of this post is taken from the song When True Simplicity Is Gained, a song made famous as the melody around which Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring is built. Specifically the second stanza:

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed

And to turn, turn will be our delight

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I talked about this song in one of my earliest posts, and it’s appropriate again now, but for a different reason.

Then, I was talking about complexity and the need to return to the simple focus of serving the Lord.

Now, I’m remembering that one of the meanings of “simplicity” is “singleness of focus”.

To bow and to bend is inextricably part of repentance – we have to acknowledge God’s right to say what’s right; we have to bend to His judgment of how things really are. And with the language of turning, we really do seem to be in repentance territory.

But “to turn, turn will be our delight“? What could possibly make repentance delightful?

Well, even the invitation to repent is supposed to be Good News. God isn’t writing you off. You are valuable enough to Him to be given another chance.

But it’s “when true simplicity is gained” that turning becomes a delight. When we have such singleness of focus on the Lord that we align our thinking to His because it’s so much better than ours. When all of the things that get in the way – our pride, our attraction to foolish things, our love of sinning – wither in the laserlike intensity of devotion to Him.

It’s a process. We’re probably not going to get all the way there in one jump. If God does a major work and leaps you over years of painful struggle, don’t dismiss it, but many of us do struggle for years. But in the end, “by turning, turning” we will come round right. He’s staked His word on it. He’s going to transform us into His image with ever-increasing glory, beginning in this world and continuing to the next.