Talkin’ About My Generation

Watching the Parkland students eloquently disembowel the gun lobby, commentators have hopefully heralded the rise of “Generation Z” and their adept social-media handling running rings around the rest of us.

All of this prompted my wife to ask the question: What happened to our generation?

I, the native Brit, asked her what she meant. What about our generation?

Where and when I grew up we didn’t name the generations so much. In my teens in the mid- to late-’80s (I think that’s when it was) I have recollections of my church hosting a visiting American speaker who asked “how many Generation Xers” were present in the service. I’d never heard the term before, and neither had most other people judging from the show of no hands that he received. He had to define both that and “Baby Boomer” before he could make whatever his point was.

I knew the words “Baby Boom” from school history textbooks on the end of the Second World War, but the idea that the people born then (in my mind, up to about 1956 or so would probably account for a post-war Baby Boom) constituted some sort of social or cultural group was as alien to me as the idea that I was a member of the same generation as people born in 1964 most of a decade before me.

I not only didn’t think of myself as Generation X, I didn’t even know what it meant.

Cue the Dr. Who music and cut to the present day and I know what Generation X, Baby Boomer and Millennial mean now in the common American vocabulary. Piecing it together from usage wasn’t that hard, though it did require a few minor leaps of imagination. But I didn’t know what my wife meant about “what happened to our generation?”

“As the Generation X church, we were always told that we were a special generation,” my wife informed me. The idea apparently being that since we were the first generation born after the Roe vs. Wade court decision legalised abortion, that we were “survivors”, a “Moses generation” who were destined for greatness. “Greatness” apparently being defined in terms of victory in the American Culture Wars between Christian morality and the advance of the Left.

“What have we actually done?”. We haven’t overturned Roe vs. Wade, or reversed the spread of evolutionism or whatever else the American Baby Boomer Christians told us we were destined to do.

My wife remembers that at the same time she was being told her generation was special and significant, they were being denigrated as “slackers” and chided for being “no shows” to their parents’ Culture War battlefronts.

I opined that I didn’t think this was fair. Who gave the Boomer church the right to set the spiritual priorities of our generation? Maybe God had other plans. What tasks did we set ourselves to accomplish? How are we doing on those?

When she mentioned the “special generation” theory, it sounded vaguely familiar, including the abortion reference. It may well be that this was what that visiting preacher was trying to say, but I have no idea now, of course.

Looking up the different generational names to confirm that I’d pieced together my understanding correctly, I was struck by how much the cultural associations seem to be primarily American. This is understandable; the terms are American in origin. But I don’t really see myself in the Amerocentric Generation X category (subset Christian), and I definitely don’t see the British church of my parents’ generation in the American picture of “Baby Boomer (subset Christian)”.

The Roe vs. Wade decision didn’t actually affect my country, so how that’s supposed to make British Generation X a “special generation” is anybody’s guess, but give the guy points for trying even if he hadn’t thought it all the way through. I like being told my generation has an important spiritual role to play as much as the next person.

Be that as it may, apart from maybe this one guy, I don’t remember the spiritual leaders of my parents’ generation telling us that we were a special and chosen generation. In that, perhaps I missed out, but if it came with a load of baggage and expectations of “here are your targets. Go forth and be good foot soldiers in our war”, I’m just as pleased I wasn’t told I was part of a generation with a powerful destiny.

The fact of the matter is that the Culture Wars of the United States have no real parallel in the British political and spiritual landscape. If there was an anti-hippie counter-revolution in the British church that called for a return to respect for authority and traditional patriarchal values, I’ve never once heard about it. The church in Britain, almost without exception, to this day teaches that God made the world but He probably used evolution to do it. It’s a non-issue and vanishingly few people care. The abortion issue simply doesn’t register on anyone’s set of priorities; certainly not on the priorities of any of the major political parties, for all that there are legions of American Christians who make it their sole defining issue. Homosexuality – yeah, we lost that one in the public sphere. I hope we lost it a little more graciously than the American church are losing it on this side of the Atlantic, but that’s probably a vain hope.

We had other priorities, like Anglican bishops publically proclaiming disbelief in basic Christian doctrine like the bodily resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth, in a state church apparently spiritually dead from the neck up.

Maybe God has a special purpose for the American Generation X “survivor generation”. I don’t know. I do think He’s more likely to tell the generation themselves what that purpose is, though, rather than have a destiny imposed on them from the Boomer church’s priorities.

In Britain, many of us believed we were a generation with a special purpose in that we would be the generation who would see the return of Christ, coming on the clouds and in great glory. I’m personally convinced that every generation of Christ’s followers ought to live as though that were true, but the fact of the matter is that we do not know when the Lord will return. I remember many of us setting ourselves the task of finishing the work, completing the Great Commission of taking the whole Gospel to every nation and tribe and people and language, but whether that was just because I was looking to be part of a missions organisation at the time I couldn’t say.

How are we doing on that self-appointed task? Well, it’s not finished yet, but the last few decades have seen significant progress.  We’ll find out from the light of Eternity, once the Lord wraps up Time.

Did God set that goal for Generation X, for my generation? I have no idea, but taking the Gospel to every nation seems to me a more directly Biblical goal somehow than “winning the Culture Wars” or “Taking Back America” or whatever. We’re going to obey the last command of Christ. We’re going to be the generation that gets it done.  We hope.

Not to disparage the priorities of our parents, but maybe we weren’t showing up to the Culture Wars because we’re focused on the whole world and not just a single country, no matter how spiritually significant that country is (and let’s face it, America has played a huge role in global Christianity, especially in the English-speaking world, and mostly for good not ill).

I honestly don’t know how to analyse my generation’s spiritual contribution. We place far less importance on Boomer priorities of passing righteous laws and legally restraining supposedly anti-Christian groups; we’re cynical about the effectiveness of trying to legislate people into morality, and some of us doubt whether some of these groups are really as dangerous to Christian civilisation as we’ve been informed. But perhaps that was never our fight.

My wife made the comment that our generation never had a huge protest movement. The Sixties (at least in America) had the Civil Rights campaign and Martin Luther King, Generation Z have the nascent anti-gun lobby protests, Millennials have… the Occupy Wall Street movement? I don’t know. But what do we have?

In Britain, what I remember of student protest movements from my generation were the end of the anti-Apartheid protests focused on South Africa, or animal rights (which might be a particularly British focus), or fair trade, or campaigns to end hunger and deal with the cycle of poverty and starvation in Africa.

I have no idea what American students were activising about, but it seems to me that one of the common threads here is that we want justice for the whole world. It’d be interesting to find out whether this carries through to our American counterparts.

But to an extent, because our social and cultural situation wasn’t like America’s, because British Christian Baby Boomers weren’t fighting American Culture Wars, because a lot of our shared experiences weren’t also shared by Americans, I’d expect there to be some differences. I’d actually like to see a Brit-focused study looking at the shared experiences of British members of the different so-called generations. It’s even possible that the demographics look different and the generations are divided up differently; certainly there’s enough uncertainty and dispute as to when precisely one generation ends and the next begins even solely in the US data that it seems clear we’re just drawing arbitrary lines.

Personally I think that encompassing a whole 20-year period in a single sociocultural “generation” may be pushing it; what “shared experience and perspective” is someone born at the end of that period supposed to have with someone 20 years their senior? They could just about be parent and child, for goodness’ sake!

And yet, they’re convenient labels for people of particular ages, and it’s true that the shared experiences of a generation do tend to mould people of a similar age in a similar way. If you’re a pre-teen child when 9/11 happens, you’ll probably react in a broadly similar way to other preteen children, for example, and that will probably be substantially different to how someone who’s an adult at the time reacts.

What happened to Generation X? I don’t know. I never had another generation’s expectations held up as a standard for me to cleave to, but apparently many of my American peers did. How God will judge my generation’s accomplishments is the important question, and right now I’m still back on whether God has a particular task for my generation and what that might be if He does.

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The Reluctant Evangelist

My pastor is doing some teaching on spiritual gifts at the moment in our church’s after-service Bible study time, and naturally, we’re doing one of those spiritual gift inventory quizzes as part of it.

I’ve done a boatload of different ones of these over the course of my Christian life. I used to love them and set quite a bit of stock in the results; these days I’ve done so many that I confess to being a bit more sceptical. Part of my mind is always looking at the test itself, cataloguing possible blind-spots and trying to determine the precise theological perspective of the testers when it comes to the supernatural. It’s always interesting to see how a “low-supernatural”-perspective quizmaker handles stuff like prophecy or the message of knowledge.

Anyway, for the first time ever on one of these I managed to score higher for the gift of evangelism than I did for the gift of teaching.

I imagine my University friends are now giggling. Geoff?? Might have the gift of evangelism???

I was well-known in my circle in those days for hating the idea of “doing evangelism” and being dragged kicking and screaming, virtually at gunpoint, through the Agapé (=Campus Crusade in the UK where no-one uses the awful word “crusade” any more)-run “evangelism training” foisted upon us by the executive committee of our Uni’s Christian Union.

One of my best friends was said body’s Evangelism Secretary, and I recall long, mutually-frustrating talks in which he endeavoured to badger me into being more active in doing evangelism and I threw up roadblocks of every conceivable kind.

The thing is, I’ve had evangelism spoken over me by almost every prophetic person I’ve encountered right back into my teens, and while the various prophetic words have always rung true otherwise, it’s something I never understood. As far as I could tell, I was a teacher much more than I was an evangelist.

It didn’t help that all the evangelists I’d ever encountered were loud, horribly extroverted expert conversationalists that naturally gravitated towards people and were good at engaging total strangers. And if they were teen evangelists, add in that they all had a fetish about telling stories involving baby poo.  (Honestly, do they train all teen evangelists in some central facility that gives them a test on the quality of their baby-poo stories? It’s uncanny…)

Evangelism wasn’t me, as far as I could tell. I was (and am) very introverted, terrible at basic conversation of the type that gets called “small talk”, and somewhat fearful of talking to people I don’t know. In addition I still have no idea how such “evangelist” types segue between regular conversation and Jesus.

I think I doubly frustrated my friend because I have the sort of mind that gravitates to apologetics. I can make a reasonable case for what I believe with most people, if they have honest questions rather than just looking for excuses not to believe. I keep that sort of stuff in my head; it’s interesting to me. And yet it used to be that I would do virtually anything rather than participate in evangelism.  Cleaning toilets looked good.

I believed what God appeared to be saying through those various prophetic words, but I didn’t want it and I didn’t see how it fit. God would have to sort it out, because I wasn’t going to.

Several decades later and I find myself both beginning to embrace the idea of evangelism and letting go of the illusion that I’m a teacher.

I no longer believe that to be the case. I don’t explain well; people frequently need an explanation after one of my explanations. Not the mark of a gifted teacher, for all my clinging to that in order to fend off those wretched evangelists.

Part of my problem was and is that the way they generally try and train you to do evangelism is so 1950s. Or 1970s at best. Tracts. The Four Spiritual Laws (or Knowing God Personally by its marginally better British title). Street witnessing. Door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness or other heretic sectarian.

None of this is remotely natural for me. I was always at a loss as to how you were supposed to get from introducing yourself to a random stranger to opening up a booklet entitled “Knowing God Personally” and going through it as if it’s some kind of all-purpose instruction manual.  How many times does a random stranger come up and naturally get into going through a little pamphlet with you in real life?

All evangelism training I’ve ever had inflicted upon me makes the basic assumption that you already know how to have a basic conversation, usually with a stranger.

To this day I don’t believe that’s personally all that true. I never know what to discuss with people. I’m not a sports fan (any sport), I don’t do the whole Country scene that Texans are so into, my politics are nearly diametrically opposed to the majority surrounding me, I don’t have time to watch much TV. I can barely hold up my end of a conversation with someone I know relatively well, and as for taking charge of a conversation and steering it toward spiritual things, what do you think I am, some sort of loudmouth extrovert? At best I can manage some sort of heavy-handed and contrived segue that feels completely unnatural to me and probably is worse for the designated victim.

The easy bit for me is talking about Jesus. I’m relatively comfortable discussing spiritual things or debating the evidence that the Bible is reliable. It’s actually getting to that point that I find next to impossible. I hate feeling like I’m making some sort of cold-call sales pitch. All of my cultural background screams that I’m committing the cardinal English sin of imposing on someone. Sales is so fake anyway; I don’t trust those slippery buggers in Marketing. I always get the impression they’ll say anything at all to sell their product. Truth is irrelevant; just make the sale and don’t get caught out in a demonstrable lie.

Not interested in becoming a salesman, even for Jesus.

My solution is as simple as it is counterintuitive, if my experience of evangelism training is anything to go by: place yourself in situations in which people are already primed to talk of things spiritual.

My discovery of another way dates to several years ago now, on a Youth With A Mission Discipleship Training School in Montana.

Having taken a week-long mini-outreach to the thriving metropolis of Spokane, Washington (it’s a school in NW Montana. You need a separate scale for what constitutes a thriving metropolis), we were instructed one afternoon to wander around the city looking for opportunities to tell people about what Jesus has done for us.

Ugh. Talking to strangers, with the added burden that I need to find some way to inflict a phony sales pitch on them. Double ugh.

And so I found myself wandering the streets of Spokane with a worry in my mind and a sinking feeling in my heart.

I didn’t feel I could legitimately duck the assignment. Telling lies on a discipleship training school about how hard I had tried to find someone to talk to seemed counterproductive. Besides, God talks to them, and I was sure that He’d rat me out.

I wandered past a Christian Science reading room. I had some experience of debate with Jehovah’s Witnesses and a bit less with Mormons (they aren’t as common in the UK as they are in America) but beyond being told in my growing up that they were an heretical sect (“neither Christian nor science” was the description I remember), I knew nothing about Christian Science.

“I don’t know anything about debating with them,” I thought, and carried on walking. But then I stopped. “But at least anyone in there will presumably be ready to talk about spiritual things,” I thought. “At least I won’t have to do the unnatural and nasty-minded thing of trying to strike up a bait-and-switch conversation with a stranger”. So I turned around and went in.

The great thing about walking into a den of heresy or Scriptural misinterpretation is that they will do all the work of getting the conversation onto spiritual things for you. Who needs to be able to run a conversation in order to do evangelism? Who needs to master the arcane art of Unnatural Segue or Bait-and-Switch Conversational Jiu-Jitsu? Place yourself somewhere where they want to tell you about what they believe and let them do the conversational heavy lifting!

Then ask them questions about what they say.

I can do this easily. Not knowing anything about what they believe in some ways makes it easier, because I honestly really want to understand, so that I can identify where they differ from the consensus of mainstream historic Christian teaching. And they pick up on that genuine want to know and open up. It’s so easy!

It’s nothing like how they train you to do evangelism. It’s the total opposite of any evangelism book I’ve had thrust upon me. To this day I recall the dreadful Out of the Saltshaker with a certain amount of loathing, with its hyped “this will change your life!” Americanism and its phony-sounding “confession” that the author had once found evangelism difficult. I bet you did not have my level of incapacity with basic conversation, Rebecca Manley Pippert.

Knowing God Personally booklets and all the contrived sales talk of the street evangelist or door-to-door worker do not work for me. So-called “friendship evangelism” too often felt dishonest, like I was pretending to be someone’s friend in order to target them. And when those recommending we all do friendship evangelism loudly proclaimed that “we all know how to make friends” I always felt like putting my hand up and saying “I don’t”. Other people made friends with me, but I honestly didn’t feel like I knew how to initiate friendship.

If making friends is easy for you, I can understand the attraction of friendship evangelism. To me it was always being instructed to do something incredibly difficult (making friends) in order to do something equally difficult (talking about Jesus).

If you groove to street ministry, God bless you. For myself, being accosted on the street when I’m trying to do my shopping or find some lunch by someone with an agenda makes me hostile and defensive, and you’re immediately fighting an uphill battle. And the same goes nearly double for door-to-door. I operate under the assumption that any strangers ringing my doorbell are unwanted salespeople or unwanted cultists. On the doorstep after you’ve interrupted what I was doing is not where I want to do my buying and selling or have a conversation about the True Way.

I’d much rather go onto their turf and wait for them to engage me in conversation, where they’re open to talking about spiritual things and I’m not feeling a double dose of guilt – both for inflicting someone else’s brand of in-person telesales on them, and because I ought to find nothing more fulfilling as a believer than telling someone about Jesus but actually this sucks.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that this is the sole way we all ought to do evangelism. It’s a way that maximises my personal strengths and works around my weirdnesses and weaknesses. Likely it wouldn’t work as well for too many other people. Most people don’t have my hangups and feeling of inadequacy to the apparently simple task of befriending people.

But because all of the ways I have been shown feel either unnatural or dishonest or an imposition, I had to find my way on my own. I offer this story as an encouragement to anyone else who loathes and fears the traditional ways of doing evangelism. There are other ways.  This might be one of them.

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.

Stone of Help

Almost a full calendar year later and we’re all still here.

Given that I feared at the beginning of the year that the current President would have triggered World War Three by now, this feels like more of an achievement than it sounds like.

At the start of January, I confessed that what I wanted from 2017 was “to survive it”. Not much of a goal, but with political craziness apparently advancing on all fronts it seemed like the best I could hope for. Between the near-miss of the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom in the Scottish independence referendum and the direct hits of the Brexit vote and the US Presidential election, it seemed this time last year as though the world was on a scary downward spiral into chaos. Survival seemed not an assured thing but something to be wished.

Politically I still feel a lot like an unwilling participant in some sort of crazy version of a Japanese game show with a name something like How Sucky Is Your Future?, but though the end is indeed near, as the Scripture says, it isn’t quite yet, and in the meantime we have a job to do.

Ultimately my future doesn’t suck at all, and the politicians thankfully can’t do a thing about it, because I’m fairly convinced that this administration are looking for a way to mess it up.

As a legally-resident non-US citizen I watch politics the way a sailor watches the weather, and for the same reason: he can’t do anything about it. I don’t have the vote as a non-citizen, but the political situation blows upon me regardless as a tempest, and I have to weather the storm for my family as best I can.

What I’m looking for from 2018 is to find a way to thrive despite the circumstances. Placing my confidence more fully in the God who can save rather than in the political princes and policies that cannot, I want to look forward with joy to the final future in which evil is done away with and the Lamb is enthroned in the world. Depending on His power and strength, I want to raise up my family in spite of what the world and society would do to push them down. God is my strength and my song and my salvation; He is my source of provision and my ultimate Resource for when, like in these days, my own simply can’t manage.

I want to experience the “life, and that abundantly” that Jesus said He had come that we might have. Too much of the last year has felt like the devil coming to try and steal, kill and destroy. Enough. Emmanuel has come: God With Us. Life, and that abundantly, because in Christ all that God is is with us.

A New Year is right around the corner, full of who knows what. It’s tremendously easy in these days to focus on the potential trouble we see being fomented around us by our adversary, but as I said this time last year, the idea is that we take our attention off of the waves and put it back on the Saviour in the middle of them. God is bigger than the troubles. Salvation doesn’t come from a party platform or a change in the laws, but from trusting in the One who died to put an end to the old Law with its written code opposed to us.

It feels like a good time to shout “Hosanna”. Though today that means that we’re really thankful and pleased with how things have turned out, the word really means “Save Us!”. It’s Hebrew for SOS, and it seems appropriate on both levels right now. Help us, save us, because we’re in it up to our necks and we can’t see a way out, but thank You that You are the God of the Way Out! In You there is salvation, no matter what it looks like, and we celebrate that and shout Hosanna.

As 2017 draws to a close I feel a little like the Israelites in the First Book of Samuel. Having just survived their first battle against the terrible iron-wielding Philistines, but foreseeing how many still more difficult battles there were undoubtedly ahead of them, the nation of Israel under Samuel erected a memorial stone called Eben-Ezer, or “Stone of Help”, saying “thus far hath the LORD helped us”.

I feel like this is my situation. Or as the old hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing put it: “Here I raise my Ebenezer/Hither by Thy help I’m come/And I hope, by Thy good pleasure/Safely to arrive at home”.

Biblical Hope isn’t the sort of wishy-washy “wouldn’t it be nice” feeling that sets the goal of “to survive it”. It’s confident expectation, knowing that God is bigger than the problems we might face. There are dangers on the road, but by Thy good pleasure, if the LORD is pleased with us (and we know that He loves us and wants good for us), we will arrive safely at home.

So here in this post I raise my own Eben-Ezer.  Thus far hath the LORD helped us.

More, Lord!

Adventus: Late In Time Behold Him Come

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is probably my favourite Christmas carol. Not only is it sung to the same tune on both sides of the Atlantic (unlike Away In A Manger, Angels From The Realms Of Glory or It Came Upon A Midnight Clear), but the words are superb, full of meaning and truth.

This lyric, in the second verse, however, is on the face of it a little strange. How can God, the Lord over time itself, be late?

As part of a family that often struggles with punctuality, it’s somehow comforting that even the Lord of the Universe is being described as late, but that is, of course, not the precise meaning of “late” that’s being used here.

“Late” doesn’t solely mean “running behind schedule”. That’s absurd when applied to God, but it raises an important point about Biblical time. The Koine Greek language in which the New Testament was written has two words for “time”, and they have subtly different meanings. Chronos is the word from which we derive modern words like “chronology” and “chronometer” and “chronic”. It’s used for the regular progression of minutes, hours, days, weeks and years. Chronos time is the world of schedules and clocks and calendars. And though God works in chronos time, the most important events on Heaven’s calendar are scheduled with kairos time.

Kairos is the other Greek word for time, and it’s used for specific important moments and seasons that may or may not come regularly in chronos time. “The time of the Pharaohs” is kairos – a specific period, but you can’t exactly say that it began on March 22nd, 4004BC and lasted exactly 2867 years 92 days and 6 hours. “When I was young” is kairos time, and so is “When I grow up”. My kids think bedtime is kairos time, and keep trying to push it later and later.

The Bible uses the word kairos in verses like “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for us”. In essence, it’s used for “redemptive time”, if you like: the hidden schedule of God’s master redemptive plan that began in a garden and ends in a city. Kairos is why the Bible sometimes skips over hundreds or thousands of years of history or sometimes fails to mention contemporary rulers whom archaeologist and historians number among the movers and shakers of the world. They aren’t significant to kairos time.

It’s kairos time that encapsulates the Messianic prophecies that state that “in the last days” God would send Messiah. Kairos-wise, we’ve been in the last days since Bethlehem in about 4BC, and it’s this to which the lyric refers. All the waiting and expectancy is over. All the prophetic time through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, “Gideon, Jephthaih, Barak and the prophets” is finally coming to a head. The time of promise is here.

Celebrating the inauguration of the Last Days and the coming of the central figure of the entire Bible and of history itself right at the end of the calendar year seems especially apt. Late in the year (chronos) we celebrate the Advent of the One Whom God promised to send late in time itself (kairos).

It’s very nearly Christmas day now. All presents bought, all cupboards stocked, the house decorated and the lights twinkling. Last-minute details like final house-cleaning, gift-wrapping, thawing the turkey and placing presents under the tree are either completed or underway. Tonight the children hang up their stockings, tomorrow their excited anticipation is fulfilled.

Tonight, once more, we await expectantly. Tomorrow, we will unwrap the Gift.

Adventus: O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is possibly the only well-known carol that’s specifically for Advent rather than Christmas itself, and its lyrics are particularly significant for my personal Advent season focus of this year.  It is, after all, “O Come Emmanuel“, chronicling in song the hope of God With Us in at least a tithe of all that means.

I thought we might look at the text of it a little bit:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirist by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease;
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That’s seven verses, so there’s quite a lot we could unpack here, and I’m not going to do much more than take a cursory overflight of the highlights, but let’s see what we can find, ok?

The whole thing is a prayer:  O come, God With Us.  The carol is translated out of Latin and is a modified version of the 8th-Century O Antiphons.   It’s written sort-of from the perspective of God’s Covenant people Israel, and has an interestingly Messianic-Jewish flavour for an antique Christian hymn.  Of course, Israel are symbolically standing in for all the Covenant people of God under both the Old Covenant and the New, and one could see it as a bit of an example of the Replacement Theology that was common in the mid-1800s when it was translated into  English, but I’m going to let that stand without comment.  One could equally choose to interpret the flow of the lyrics as exemplifying the theology of ingrafting.

The first verse focuses on what was then the most obvious feature of the state of the Jewish nation: exile.  Until 1945 they didn’t have a homeland.  And this is a good metaphor for our own spiritual state, especially as unregenerate.  We’re in exile, away from our heavenly home, cast out from Eden and the direct experience of the presence of God.  Signs of Him coming among us in all of His grace and majesty are lamentably few: here and there in the world, now and then in time.  A far cry from when we will finally be Home and the whole earth will be full of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  We want, we need, to come Home, to be with God.  O come, God With Us.

The second verse focuses it down onto what is perhaps the root of all problems.  “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”.  The Scriptures and our own experience make it abundantly clear that our problem isn’t simply that we’re exiled from the presence of a holy God, it’s that we’re dominated.  Unregenerate, we’re under the thumb of a tyrant worse than Hammurabi or Pol Pot: the Devil, father and inspirer of despots.  Even two thousand years after the Advent, dictatorships abound and true freedom often seems hard to come by.  Our fallen human nature having shrugged off the easy and light yoke of the Lord, we’re easy marks for the tyranny of the other spiritual power.

Verse three invites the Dayspring, the Source of light and joy, to “come and cheer/Our spirits by Thine Advent here”.  Because life in exile and under the tyranny of the World, the Flesh and the Devil is a pretty miserable existence.  This is also a reminder that the life of the Kingdom brought by the Baby Whose coming we celebrate isn’t some long joyless slog of battle and pain, as we try in our own strength to live lives worthy of the high call of God to which we have been called.  Christ is also the Dayspring, the One Who comes to cheer our spirits.  The one Who “light and life to all He brings”.  His light disperses the gloom and puts even death’s shadow to flight.  As is written:  “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men”.

Verse four addresses the Key of David, the One who opens and no-one can shut, Who shuts and no-one can open.  This is more or less variations on what has gone before, but the language of “make safe the way that leads on high” seems significant.  As someone that works in the dangerous field of heavy construction, I have to know about and be concerned for safety.  It’s a dangerous world out there; even doing things right isn’t safe by most measures.  But Jesus “makes safe” the way that leads on high.  This is not to say we will have a trouble-free path through the world.  The Bible is clear that this is a false hope.  But death cannot snatch us out of His grasp.  Even if this world in all its wickedness may kill us, we’re safe in His arms.

The fifth verse gets us into interesting territory.  We don’t like to think of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge, but He is that too, as well as Baby in the manger and Saviour on the cross.  His gound-level-up refocusing of the Torah’s requirements in the Sermon on the Mount amount to a new and higher law, that of love.  “Cloud and majesty and awe” may have been absent from that occasion, but for all that, the twin commandments that “sum up the Law and the Prophets” – love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself – are more complete and universal than the myriad individual requirements of the Old Covenant.

Not that we’re made righteous by obeying a Law – neither the Old Covenant’s law nor the New Covenant’s twin commandment – but we obey the commandment because we have been made righteous.

The penultimate verse focuses in on one of my favourite subjects: wisdom and knowledge.  It’s appropriate that it comes late in the sequence, after subjects like freedom from Satan’s tyrannyand an end to exile, because those are more fundamental problems for the human condition.  Other religions have ignorance as the base of the human problem: we don’t know what’s right.  If that were the case, a law, given by a prophet of some sort, would indeed be sufficient and we’d all more or less be Muslims.  But both the Bible and experience teach us that that’s not the case.  Knowing what is right, we do not do it, or at least, not very often, and we need a Saviour before we need Wisdom from on high.  But we do also need Wisdom.  It has been defined as “knowledge plus love”, which is as good a definition as most; the ability to discern the best thing to do.  “Order all things far and nigh”, the verse pleads; let Wisdom direct our steps and arrange our lives.  Instead of the chaos of our conflicting desires and counterproductive impulses, let there be a Divine order, a flow, a pattern.  Not a regimentation, necessarily, but a higher structure that allows freedom, in the way that democracy hinges on the rule of law and cannot exist without it.  “To us the path of knowledge show”, as a Guide, but more than that, “cause us in her ways to go.”  The gender here is interesting, because in Proverbs the divine personification of Wisdom is female.  God’s feminine side, as it were.

And so we come to the last verse.  “O come, Desire of nations, bind/In one the hearts of all mankind”.  And now we’re deliberately stepping beyond the Jewish nation to the Gentile world; “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same word in Hebrew.  In our current divided days this verse seems highly significant.  “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/And be Thyself our King of Peace”.  A true peace of divisions subsumed in brotherly love, not an enforced Pax Romana or a papered-over peace based on ignoring the real differences between us.  All I can say to this is “Come, Desire of nations”.

Like any good classic hymn, there’s a huge amount of theological import here, and I find myself this year praying it in earnest.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Complete the work You have started in us!  Bring us on to completion in Yourself, bring about the final consummation of the great work of the salvation of the world!

Maranatha!

Adventus: Down Into Darkness

Something I do every year in the Advent season is to dial in my focus onto a particular aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the incredible act of faith it took to react to Gabriel’s announcement with a simple “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according th what you have said”. The year after my eldest was born I found myself focusing on Joseph and what it must have taken to be a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the shepherds, some years the Magi. Last year it was the inherent contradiction and upside-downness of it all: while the world was focused on the rich and great, Tiberius Caesar, Governor Quirinius, Herod in his palace, the real story is two dirt-poor displaced persons and a baby being laid in an animal feeding trough to get him off the floor. And it’s this, not any humanly-great historical figure, who’s going to change the world.

This year it’s the Incarnation itself.

It’s not the first year I’ve focused on the Incarnation, but I wasn’t blogging the last time that was the case, so I get to talk about it all fresh.

This year, too, at least initially, my focus in a little diiferent to last time.

Last time I focused on the Incarnation it was the idea of Emmanuel, God With Us, the Lord of the Universe become a man like me.

This year it’s the idea of Jesus the Light coming down out of His heaven of light to take up residence in this dark world among all of our chaos and pain. The idea of descent, of coming down from the perfection which was His right into our darkness and mess.

The Incarnation isn’t completely unique to Christianity. Other religions, particularly Hinduism, have their gods taking on flesh and living among men. But what sets Jesus apart is the purpose of His taking on flesh. He’s not cavorting among lesser beings for His own amusement or because He wants something from us; it’s part and parcel of the Divine rescue plan.

If you’re trapped in a burning building with toxic air, having a set of instructions broadcast in to tell you where the fire exit is is all very well, but it’s less helpful than sending in fire fighters. When the air itself turns toxic with lack of oxygen and presence of all manner of chemicals, reason gets bent sideways and you can’t always rely on your thought processes. Neither can humans, unaided, get free from the sin that afflicts us and corrupts our minds so that we can save ourselves. And that’s what makes the Incarnation special: God is coming Himself to rescue us from the spiritual conflagration that we started.

“Down Into Darkness”

As an initial expression of this idea of God coming down into our mess, I built this LEGO model, in which I’ve tried to communicate the concept of the Light coming down into our darkness.

Not all that brilliant as a piece of art, perhaps, but I hope it gets its point across.

The Incarnation means God coming down into our darkness, living among all of the corruption and arrogance and cruelty and greed and indifference of which humans prove themselves capable every time it’s day. Perfect justice coming to live in an inherently unjust world. Grace being born among the graceless. Purity and light shining in the night of impurity.

More, it’s the beginning of the transformation of the world. Now that the Light has come, we don’t have to walk in darkness any more. We can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We don’t have to keep on acting like corruption is inevitable or that arrogant self-centred cruelty is just the way it is.

As Jesus Himself said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden; neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father, Who is in heaven.”

Trusting in Jesus isn’t just finding the fire escape; it’s also a call to action. We’re called to be lights, shining His Light, doing good in a corrupt and sinful world. Good works alone won’t save us, but as Jesus Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, we are called to incarnate His Incarnation, to be His vessels of grace. If we aren’t doing good, are we really incarnating the One who is Good?

At the end of a year which has seemed especially full of chaos and darkness and human mess, the idea of spending some time reflecting on the “true Light that gives life to everyone” coming into our dark mess of a world is a potent one.

Light, stepping down into darkness.

Maranatha.