Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.


Fighting the Good Fight: Maz Kanata and Yoda

Being somewhat slow on the uptake where new films are concerned, I’ve only just seen The Force Awakens.

Today’s blog post (and the first in a while; I’ve been low on inspiration for blogging) concerns this excellent film, and some of the theological implications of it as compared with some of the other films.

In particular, I want to compare and contrast the character of Maz with that of Yoda.

Maz Kanata is a new character introduced in this film, and she’s fairly obviously intended to fill much of Yoda’s role – the wise counsel and mentor figure. Obviously, Yoda died in Return of the Jedi and they can’t bring him back, and someone needs to step into the shoes of such a powerful and iconic character.

Maz Kanata: a sort of bald wrinkly owl

She’s even somewhat physically similar – short of stature and wrinkly with age. There are some differences, though; she’s not a member of Yoda’s species (unless they have some very severe sexual dimorphism, which isn’t totally out of the question). Whereas Yoda looks rather goblinesque, Maz gives the impression of a bald, wrinkly owl.

It seems appropriate. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and her symbol was the owl.

Yoda: a bit goblinesque?

It’s the character differences between Maz and Yoda that I want to focus on, though, because they’re really interesting and instructive.

We meet Maz operating a bar on Takodana. It’s an interesting place to meet a wise counsel and presumably instructress in the Force, but then, so’s Dagobah. This, in itself, is a really interesting difference. Master Yoda has always had a secretive hermitish streak in him, even in the prequel trilogy. Remember his switch from limping around with a cane to somersaulting in the air with a lightsaber? He interacts with the other members of the Jedi Council, but you’re always left with the impression that he’s fundamentally alone, that he holds them at arm’s length and keeps himself apart.

Maz, by contrast, is social. She runs a bar, which is about as far from hermitage as it’s possible to get. What we’re almost seeing, in fact, is TNG’s Guinan for the Star Wars universe. There’s a tradition of the wise old barkeep with his fount of common-sense wisdom, and Maz is firmly in that tradition.

For humans at least, social interaction is a vital part of what makes us human. Solitude is important (as a true introvert I should know), but interaction is equally vital. “It is not good for man to be alone”; the first thing recorded in Scripture as being “not good”. Maz’ social nature seems, in some ways, more fundamentally healthy than Yoda’s hermitism.

Like Yoda, Maz is obviously sensitive to the Force, and though we haven’t seen any direct evidence of it, every other time someone is revealed as being Force-sensitive in the Star Wars universe, it carries with it at least the potential for Force usage.

Leia has obviously not chosen to pursue study of the Force under her brother’s tutelage, but the implications of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are clear: she’s at least a potential Force user, able to reach Luke’s mind and direct the Falcon to him in ESB and revealed as his sister in RotJ and blessed with as strong a measure of “the Force is with you” luck as he was in A New Hope. So, by the measure of everything we have been shown, Maz ought to be able to use the Force as well, at least in potential. She certainly seems to be foreseeing when she tells Rey that “the belonging you seek is ahead, not behind”. She may be, by her own testimony, “no Jedi”, but that in itself is an interesting statement with several possible meanings.

Maz’ main Force speech also contrasts favourably with Yoda’s. I’ve examined Yoda’s speech in detail on this blog before (in The Dark Side of the Force), and concluded that, much as I love Yoda as a character, he’s not really very Christian in either his philosophy or his approach.

Yoda’s speech is all about avoiding the Dark Side as manifested in “anger, fear, aggression”. By Yoda’s lights, it’s wrong to feel angry about injustice, wrong to be proactive in opposing evil. Remember, “a true Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack”.

Maz’ great Force speech, on the other hand, is practically bombastic. It’s all about resisting the Dark Side, actually fighting evil, standing up for what is right. The fact that she looks so much like a wrinkly owl is again appropriate, because Athena was also the goddess of battle strategy.

Maz gently takes Finn to task for his incipient cowardice: “I see in your eyes someone who wants to run away”, but she leaves the choice of what to do entirely up to him.

Finn himself is really interesting, too, from a theological standpoint, but maybe I’ll talk about him in another post.

Maz seems to have far more compassion on display than Yoda, too. Compare Yoda’s harsh insistence that Luke stay and complete his training even though he knows that his friends are suffering with Maz’ gentle treatment of both Finn and Rey. Maybe I’m being too hard on Yoda, but he does strike me as being more concerned with “completing Luke’s training” than with any suffering his friends might be undergoing. And yet when Luke returns to Dagobah, all he’s told is that he needs no more training.

Be that as it may, “compassionate” isn’t a normal descriptor of Master Yoda.

Maz is far more Christian in outlook than Yoda will ever be, and perhaps this is what’s behind her statement that she is “no Jedi”.

The Jedi philosophy is one of balance between Light and Dark. According to their religion, they are as uninterested in the triumph of Light as they are in the triumph of Dark. It’s seldom stated that openly, but this is the philosophy underlying the whole Jedi Order.

In Maz, the filmmakers seem to have woken up and remembered what the prequel trilogy completely glossed over: that the Jedi are Jedi Knights. Knighthood implies a fiercely protective, proactive warrior nature that was abundantly contradicted by the prequel movies. In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan says that the Jedi are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers”, and the entire portrayal of the Jedi Order in the Old Republic is more in the nature of the Shaolin Monks than the Knights Hospitaller. Their headquarters is a “temple”, and they avoid the word “knight” as assiduously as if it were carrying Bubonic Plague.

We have no way of knowing how quickly Maz’ species ages, but she certainly looks old enough to remember the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire, and she could easily be old enough to have been around and active at the time of the Old Republic.  (Wookiepedia in fact says she’s over a thousand years old).  Maybe she’s “no Jedi” for philosophical reasons, not those of ability. Her presentation of the stark reality of choice to Finn suggest that she’d be uncomfortable with the coercive influence of the Force on “the weak-minded”, and her proactive stance is a very uncomfortable fit with the Zen-like Jedi philosophy.

I know The Phantom Menace implied that there was some sort of Force-potential testing on at least the Core Worlds, and implied further that any child showing such potential was virtually conscripted nto the Jedi Order, but this is one of many problems with that film. There must be those who slip through the cracks, else why Anakin? At any rate, though the implication is that the Jedi Order represent all of the Galaxy’s Light Side users of the Force, there are practical reasons why this cannot possibly be the case. Maz seems like an example.

We haven’t seen her use any of the overt aspects of the Force, like lifting heavy objects, but she seems to be able to foresee, which is itself a Force ability, as Yoda demonstrates in The Empire Strikes Back. She has, however, evidently recovered Luke’s lightsaber either from the bowels of Cloud City or the surface of Bespin, and I’m unsure as to which possibility is more impressive. Clearly, the Force is with her.

Oh, I’m not saying Maz is definitively a Christian character. Her speech to Rey about “following the light within” sounds a lot like the sort of “follow your heart” crap that the Disney corporation usually peddles. But equally, you can choose to selectively interpret, and see it as a reference to the Holy Spirit, or a particular instruction to Rey, who already knows deep down what she must do.

At any rate, Maz certainly seems a far more Christian character than Yoda is: compassionate as well as wise, social and relational rather than secretive and a hermit, proactive in resisiting evil rather than aloof and desirous of a mere “balance” of Light and Dark.

I like her, and I hope she’s in the next film!

It Continues To Look A Lot Like Texas

Christmas is one of the most visually bizarre times of year in Texas, even in years like this one where it’s been cooler and rainier than usual for a lot of the year.

It puts me somewhat in mind of what people in the southern hemisphere must experience in those places where December and January are summer months and Christmas Day is sometimes the hottest day of the year.

Texas is in the northern hemisphere, but its subtropical continental climate means that it’s British summertime temperature as often as it’s freezing, and there are years in which Christmas Day gets comfortable T-shirt weather.

It makes all of the polar-type Christmas decorations look rather odd.

People’s lawns turn that drab brown of Texan grass in its dormant winter period (I’m still used to grass being green all the time), the air conditioners are humming, the postman is in shorts, and dotted about over the landscape are these forlorn-looking inflatable snowmen, Santas, reindeer and penguins.

The stores are all playing Jingle Bells and Let It Snow and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and climate is not cooperating in the least. An open sleigh, even one with twelve horses rather than one, is not going to do much dashing through the drab brown grass. The weather outside is frightful only in the sense that 80°F in mid-December is absurdly overheated. And the reindeer died of heatstroke.

It really brings home how much of our Christmas trappings are Northern in origin. Visually at least, the Western Christmas has its roots in Scandinavia and Germany, places where sleighs were once a normal way of getting around in the winter, where the likelihood was that there would be snow for Christmas, and maybe for months either side, places where reindeer might actually be a normal livestock animal, places where it’s dark for almost 3/4 of the 24-hour period and lights are vital.

It makes me wonder what Mediterranean Christmas traditions look like. What do they do in Spain, for example, or Greece – places where the only white at Christmas is the plaster walls of the houses?

St. Nicholas may have become Santa Claus and Father Christmas in the north, with his reindeer and sleigh, but in Southern Europe, where he’s still St. Nick? How would he get around in a place in which the idea of a sleigh is absurd?

Climatically, Texas has far more in common with Southern Europe or North Africa than it does with the fir trees and reindeer of Scandinavia, so it would make a sort of sense for decorating traditions to borrow more from those lands than from the frozen north.

Yet visually speaking, the frozen north has become Christmassy in a way that doesn’t pay any attention to climate. The Texan landscape may be brown against a clear blue sky, but somehow snowflakes and reindeer and the dark green of Christmas trees seem right to us. It seems to us as though the climate should adhere to our ideas about Christmas rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, though, the Texan climate ought to bring home to us how unnatural all our ideas of snow and the bleak midwinter are to the real story.

The Bible says that the shepherds were living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night. In Israel, as I understand it, shepherds only live out in the fields during the summer months, which means our ideas of the Light of the World coming at the darkest time of the year may technically be wrong.

But this is when we celebrate the coming of the Messiah and the inception of God’s rescue plan for fallen human beings. A light shining in the darkness. The warmth of Divine love in the midst of the coldness of a Northern winter. Richness in the leanest time of the year; joy in the middle of bleakness.

It somehow seems a more appropriate metaphor for the coming into the world of God Incarnate than in the pleasant green of a lazy English summer, or in harvest gold, or in spring blossoms. Scripture is silent on when exactly the Birth took place. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. God perhaps knew that one day even places like Texas, Argentina and Papua New Guinea would be celebrating His Advent into the world, so He didn’t tell us in order to help us not make a fetish of the trappings.

So I will use the very forlornness of the inflatable snowman decorations to remind myself that it’s not about snow and ice and the coming of the man in red, but about grace and mercy and the coming of the Word in flesh.

Christians Anonymous

I live in America (specifically, in Texas). I go to church in America. Like it or not, I’m part of American Christianity now.

Judging by what I see on the internet and in the advertising mailers we occasionally get from various Christian bookstores, I’m kind of embarrassed about admitting that.

Oh, there’s plenty of good things. America is still Christianised enough in these parts that saying you’re a Christian is still considered a positive thing. There’s a wide selection of numerous Christian radio stations and TV channels. There are several large Christian bookstores around. People set up plumbing companies with names like “Apostle Plumbing”. Politicians openly claim to be Christians. You don’t get any of that in Britain.


So much of popular American Christianity seems to be either trite and shallow or weird and crazy.

The church where I and my family worship isn’t like that, at least not in the regular services and meetings. You’d look at that and think that American Christians are normal.

But if you look at what we’re buying in terms of what’s in stock in the local Christian bookstores, you ought to be given pause.

And if you look at what we’re reading and supporting in terms of what we post online, you really ought to be given pause.

Seriously, between the Bible story action figures (my Jesus isn’t poseable), the aggressive bumper stickers urging you to “Keep Christ in Christmas” by objecting when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” (if you don’t know Jesus, merely saying “Merry Christmas” will not save you, and if you do, saying “Happy Holidays” will not keep you out), the latest crazy fad books about the coming End of the World, or at least the End of America (apparently they’re the same) and the horribly cutesy “inspirational” plaques with their Precious Moments angels and twee little sayings (that seem more about making us feel better than encouraging us to follow Christ), these days I walk into a Christian bookstore and feel like Jesus in the Temple courts. Making whips and overturning tables feels like it wouldn’t be that out of order.

Seriously, what is wrong with us?

At best, this is the spiritual equivalent of candy and junk food. It’s ok in small doses, but the constant diet to which we’re subjecting ourselves is lethal to our spiritual health and vitality.

Christian radio is no better. The stations bill themselves as “Encouraging music. Words of hope”, or “Safe for the whole family”, and have advertising testimonials from people saying just how wonderful it makes them feel.

And at times, this is appropriate. But Peter probably didn’t feel very good when Jesus told him to “Get behind me, Satan!”, the Pharisees undoubtedly didn’t feel good when Jesus demolished their arguments, and the rich young ruler went away from his encounter with Christ sad, because the Lord had exposed his love of money, and God is not now and never has been remotely safe.

It’s not Christian to make people feel better all the time. Jesus was full of truth as well as grace, and it was frequently the religious and the visibly devout that bore the brunt of His truth-telling.

However, neither is it Christian to go out of our way to be gratuitously offensive the way we sometimes want to either. Jesus dealt incredibly gently with the immorality of the woman at the well, with Zacchaeus, with Matthew the tax-collector, with the woman caught in the act of adultery. Not from His mouth any personal attacks, harsh demands to repent and shape up, or remonstrances that these sinners are corrupting the pure culture of contemporary Judean society. He was full of grace as well as truth.

No, the people that talked long and loud about the social corruption wrought by these dreadful pagan sinners were the Pharisees.

Are we working the wrong way round? We’re frequently overly gentle with ourselves and harsh with unbelievers. Jesus was frequently harshest with religious people and gentlest with sinners. And He was the Truth, so we can’t get away with misbehaving by calling it “making a stand for truth”. Just saying.

So much of what is on display is unbelievably shallow. Pre-milk. Spiritual colostrum. Or not even that – spiritual junk food. Compare the latest fad personal devotional book with something like My Utmost For His Highest and a lot of the time it’s actively shocking from what a great height we’ve fallen.

And if it’s not shallow, it’s often actively crazy. The Christianised astrology of “blood moons” (yeah, actually it’s just like astrology), the continual fear-peddling survivalist nonsense about stockpiling food, money and even weapons in preparation for the collapse of society that heralds the End Times (Um, God will take care of us tomorrow. Our job is to build His Kingdom today, not spend ages in preparing ourselves as if He’s powerless), the latest “revealed mystery” fad, whether it’s the “Bible code” or some kind of Jewish feast-based cycle of judgment or whatever. We feed ourselves so little meat of Scripture that we don’t know how to properly weigh and test anything. It seems we’ll believe anything if it has the right labels, forgetting that Satan himself is adept at having the right labels to the point of looking just like an angel of light.

And this is American Christianity as shown by what we sell ourselves. It’s embarrassing.

The frightening thing is the implication that this is what the market wants. Christian bookstores are commercial enterprises, and if it won’t sell, they’re not interested in stocking it. Which means it’s our fault that so much of what they sell is either shallow drivel or fear-mongering crazy.

Applying “you are what you eat” to what we buy, read, follow and post online, I’m becoming somewhat frightened and embarrassed to call myself a Christian. Is this tosh really what we are?

I take some comfort from the fact that most of the churches I’ve been in are relatively normal, but if our churches are so normal, why is our merchandise and online presence so dire?

And so with all due embarrassment I have to confess that I am indeed, by definition, a part of American Christianity now.

If there’s a counter-revolution, it begins here.

Man Versus Cute

My daughter had her eighth birthday the other day.

This isn’t the tomboy one that wants to be a ninja. This is the other one; the girly one. The one that likes cute stuff and actually plays with stuffed animals.

Anyway, among her presents was a DVD of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

We don’t have cable (by choice) and I’d not seen the current incarnation of the My Little Pony toy line before, but I remember the old version from the 1980s, or whenever it was.

The old toy line was harmless enough, I guess. The ponies had horrible multicoloured manes and tails at ridiculous lengths, but at least they looked vaguely equine apart from that.

I have vague recollections of there being some sort of TV series that went with the toys back then, too, but I never saw it. I was a boy. I wouldn’t have watched it even if given the opportunity.

The new ones bear about as much visual relation to equines as Hello Kitty does to a cat. The eyes have become monstrously huge, taking over the entire face in tarsier fashion, and the snout is a little snub of a nubbin that looks as much like a raccoon’s snout as a horse’s.

The biologist in me could cope with the unnatural colours and the insane hair. But this is too far. It’s like the difference between Barbie and those awful Bratz dolls. Barbie’s proportions may be unnatural, but at least she’s humanoid. Those dreadful Bratz things are all eyes and lips, distorted mockeries of human form that have become ugly as sin in the pursuit of more cuteness.

But I’d have forgiven the ponies even their distorted looks if it weren’t for the personalities they are portrayed as having in the TV series.

To a one, they all seem to have severe Attention Deficit Disorder, and a number of them are apparently hyperactive as well.

We have an ADD child, and while I’ll be the first to admit that ADD has advantages as well as drawbacks, we do have to raise her to be able to act in the non-ADD world. I don’t need a show that encourages and normalises the tendency to blurt out whatever comes into her head and act on whatever impulse she is currently experiencing.

Worse, it’s like watching a dozen teenage versions of Elmo from Sesame Street.

One was bad enough, and at least on Sesame Street there’s the chance of a few adults around to mitigate and balance Elmo’s permanent babyishness. Elmo’s a permanent two-year-old. It’s the way he’s designed.

But a dozen ponies acting like the worst sort of immature teenagers and preteens is just painful.

Oh, I guess that morally it’s not that objectionable. The lessons (and everything has to teach moral lessons these days) are good ones like not worrying about what others think, being a friend, loyalty and so on. The point gets made with a sledgehammer a lot, but at least the ponies don’t come on afterwards to “talk about what we’ve learned” or otherwise reinforce an already-obvious moral.

No, it’s just the characters that are too annoying for words.

Even worse than that is the My Little Pony: Equestria Girls DVD that also walked into our house.

Here are the same direly immature personalities, with the same unnatural hair colours and skin colours, but now bizarrely reshapen into vaguely humanoid form.

Yeah. Ponies shaped like girls. And people worry about genetically modified crops.

I thought the goal of parenting was that children would actually grow up, not that we’d spend millions of dollars reinforcing their most childish tendencies.

Still, Brianna is thrilled with her presents. And I dare say that there were a few things that I loved as a child that my parents couldn’t stand.

I’d like to think that what I watched was better quality, though, but quite probably I’m glossing over things. My generation has to answer for the success of the original My Little Ponies, the Cabbage Patch dolls, the fairly silly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

A Doe Set Free

The genesis of this post (pun intended, given the subject matter) was actually several years ago in a conversation with a good friend.

In the course of our conversation, he shared that in one of the discipleship programs he’d been a part of, they’d had some teaching on identity and the twelve tribes of Israel. He could explain it better than I, but from what I recall the gist of it was how each of the tribes had its own identity, which was revealed through the tribal blessings given by Jacob and Moses. They each had their place in the camp of God’s people, each had their name and their marching order. And just like that, we each have a God-given identity and purpose that may not be the same as someone else’s. There are different “tribes” within the people of God, and that’s ok.

Since the Bible says that Gentiles are grafted into Israel, the teacher had them each get alone with God and ask Him which of the tribes He was grafting them into. My friend’s was Asher, as I recall.

It’s not important enough to make a big deal out of (“what’s your tribe? If you don’t know, you’re missing out on God’s blessing!”), but this sort of thing appeals to me and I wanted one too. So I prayed and asked God what tribe He wanted to put me in, and to my surprise, what I believe I heard was the tribe of Naphtali.

It seemed an odd choice, especially as I began to study the tribal blessings, their history, their place in the camp. Some parts of it I liked immediately, but a lot of it was almost offensive to me. Kind of weak. Wimpy. Not very forward-looking. This is no identity for a man!

But the more I’ve looked, studied and meditated around it, the more truly fitting I find it is.

What a surprise; God knows what He’s doing.

Anyway, I thought I might share some of what I’ve found.

Naphtali was the second son of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah, and his name means “my struggle”. Rachel named him, saying that “I have fought a great struggle against my sister, and I have won”.

Not the most promising of identities. A name tied up with that ridiculous baby war between Rachel and Leah. Familial strife; Bronze Age version.

But in many cases, God imbues the rather messily-named tribal ancestors’ names with Divine prophetic import; could this also be true of Naphtali?

His name, as I have said, means “my struggle”, and was associated by the mother who named him with victory therein.

Victorious struggle? Now we’re talking!

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, sometimes I feel like I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body and mind of a 21st-Century nerd. A large part of my identity, bedrock-deep, is as a warrior, and this God-given tribal identity of Naphtali affirms that as a Divine imprint, not an accident.

The imprint is one of victory, too. To channel my nerd side and quote the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5: “No hopeless struggle against ancient and terrible forces; we were the good guys and they were the bad guys. And they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the ground.”

Silly, perhaps, but it’s an important point. This isn’t some Viking-style valiant last stand in which everyone dies. There is the real possibility of victory. God is, after all, for us. In Him, I may be stronger than I think, and wiser than I know.

The first of the blessings isn’t all that promising either, at first glance: “Naphtali is a doe set free, that bears beautiful fawns” (or possibly “that speaks beautiful words”). Really, God? A doe? Couldn’t it at least be a stag? Something a bit more masculine and warrior-like?

Nope. It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer.

Gazelles and antelopes have horns. Stags have antlers. But a doe is defenceless.

And as I’ve thought and ruminated on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something rather apt about the apparent harmlessness of a doe. You see, for all my warrior self-image, I don’t actually go out of my way to look for conflict. I avoid it if possible; I’ll fight if I have to, but I’m not looking for one. Even my stance on the bearing of arms is doe-like: unarmed by choice. My Defender is the One with the antlers.

A doe is a shy, retiring creature of the forest’s shadows. This seems appropriate to a tribe that’s in the background a lot. They don’t have a lot of time in the limelight; they’re not the visible ones like the Levites and the kings from Judah. The one Biblical hero from the tribe of Naphtali, Barak son of Ahinoam, gets told that “the honour will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman”, and he seems ok with that.

It’s very doe-like. Shy, almost.

There’s an identity here of humility, of shunning the limelight, not thrusting oneself forward, letting the glory go where it may so long as the LORD’s will is done.

I can work with that. More importantly, God can work with that.

Does, too, are swift and have an amazing leaping ability. Not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but I have a pretty swift mind and the ability to “jump” ideas from one area into another. I make weird connections. I do languages; “jumping” fairly easily into the strange sounds of a foreign tongue. Again, doe-like.

Ok, God; I’m beginning to get it.

But that “bearing beautiful fawns” business? “Speaking beautiful words” is somewhat better; as I said, I do languages. I write poetry. I write stories sometimes. I blog. Being a wordsmith is apparently Naphtaline.

But “bearing beautiful fawns” is in the NIV’s main text. As a man, it’s… motherly and feminine-seeming. Not obviously masculine as conventionally understood.

However, it’s one of my pet peeves that the way our culture sometimes defines “masculine” expectations isn’t very helpful. We miss out, and our children miss out, when we relegate child-care exclusively to women, for example. There’s a nurturing aspect to proper masculinity which we seldom see in these days; we’re too busy with our bravado and machismo and that stupid man-card nonsense. Being a man and a father is much more vital and relational than we often make it, and in a culture that has fallen for a whole pack of lies about what manhood is, perhaps it takes a man who is a doe to understand this.

The second blessing, the one in Deuteronomy, is on the face of it far more immediately pleasant, but strangely, it’s this that it’s taken me longest to really get a handle on:

“Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD and is full of His blessing. He will inherit southward to the lake”.

Yeah! Finally something good!

And then you dig a little deeper, and you begin to wonder. Really? Is that really… me?

Does “abounding with the favour of the LORD and full of His blessing” really characterise my life?

Well, yes, actually.

Even as I write, this feels like boasting, but it’s not. None of it is my own doing, after all. I have a wonderful wife who may be even smarter than I am and is certainly better to look at, three lovely children (here’s that doe-like familial nurturing side coming out), I have a home, a job, a church. I live in a place where I can follow Jesus without getting thrown into prison for it. I’m smart, gifted at languages, I have many talents. My family isn’t in debt. Full of His blessing sounds like a fair description.

And why?

The favour of the LORD. “Favour” in the Bible is the same word as “grace”; it’s not something I merited or earned, but because God is gracious. I’ve focused a lot in this blog on grace and works; perhaps this might explain why. Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD.

Graciousness is also something I strive for in my dealings with others. Generosity of spirit; largesse, courtesy and giving the benefit of the doubt. It’s perhaps another expression of the Naphtaline “abounding with the grace of the LORD”.

“He will inherit southward to the lake” I’m still less certain about, but that’s ok. Even the NASB’s rendering of it as “Take possession of the sea and the south” is still unclear as to how, or whether, it actually means anything personally. So much of the rest of the tribal identity I find meaning and resonance in that I’m reluctant to write it off, but on the other hand, this is Bible application not fortune-telling.

Naphtali’s place in the tribal camp of the people of Israel in the wilderness was on the north side of the Tabernacle, in the division of Dan. They camped and marched under the serpent standard of the tribe of Dan, and in setting out to march, it was the division of Dan which set off last, and Naphtali last of all.

Again, this is uncomfortable reading. I’ve heard people connect the marching order of the tribes with the idea of heart-willingness to follow God’s leading: “Don’t be like the tribe of Dan. Be swift to set out to go where God is leading”. The idea that I’m the last of the last in that isn’t a good one.

And a serpent standard? The animal representing Satan in the Garden? Eek.

Let’s deal with the serpent first, shall we?

The tribe of Dan’s emblem is a serpent the way Naphtali’s is a doe. It’s connected with the tribal blessing in Genesis 49. “Dan” means “He has judged”, or “He has vindicated”; the name expresses the Divine characteristic of justice, and the serpent emblem may remind us that justice plays no favourites but bites everyone equally.

Being someone with a deep concern to see justice done, I can live with being part of the camp of Dan.

Then, too, the serpent in the Garden of Eden isn’t the only serpent in the Bible. There was also the bronze serpent on a pole, lifted up in the wilderness so that those afflicted by snake bites could look on it and be healed. And Jesus likened Himself to this serpent, so even Jesus isn’t afraid to use snake imagery for righteousness at times. In the Middle Ages, Jesus was even occasionally referred to as “the Good Serpent” in reference to this.

Maybe there’s something here speaking to my love of the oddball, the unexpected image, the weird way of looking at things. I’ll find expressions of God’s goodness and truth in unlikely places. Even a snake.

Then, too, in the ancient world snakes were associated with wisdom. The prophet Daniel (whose name includes the same “Dan” element that the tribe is named after) had wisdom from God to interpret the king’s dream; and was deemed wiser than the king’s wise men. So maybe a snake isn’t so bad after all.

And the “last of the last” business. When the people of Israel broke camp, the division of Dan set off last, and Naphtali last of all. And though some preachers may connect the tribal marching order with willingness to follow the LORD, it’s something God Himself never does. He never turns to the division of Dan and says “and because you’re so wishy-washy, you have to go at the back”.

Given the tribe of Dan’s association with Divine justice, I’ve begun to wonder whether this position at the tail end of everything isn’t connected to God’s self-declaration to Moses in Exodus 34, in which justice (“Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished…”) is the last-mentioned of God’s attributes. Grace, mercy and forgiveness lead the way; justice follows. This is right. The camp of Justice ought to set off last.

The other main aspect of this tail-end position that I want to mention is something that understanding of which I owe to my wife’s Texan perspective and knowledge of the world of cattle ranching:

Naphtali are the eaters of everyone else’s trail dust.

All of the rest have already gone ahead, with their sheep and cattle and donkeys and people raising such clouds of dust as to probably blot out the pillar of fire and cloud. At the rear end of the trail, all you can see is the rear ends of those in front of you, and the great dust-cloud that says “the people of God passed this way”. You get occasional glimpses of the pillar of God way off in the distance, but mostly it’s just dust.

And this is my place: with the eaters of trail dust. I’ll put up with huge amounts of metaphorical trail dust if I know I’m following the LORD. Inconveniences, uncomfortable circumstances, stuff that would set an Issachar or a Levite screaming – to me it’s all part and parcel of following. The price of faith, and it’s worth paying, because even Naphtalis are following the same LORD as the other tribes. We camp around the same Tabernacle, and God is far less interested in when you get there than in whether.

There’s one other time the tribe of Naphtali is mentioned, of course. We hear it every Christmas: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea; Galilee of the Gentiles… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, and on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

It can get pretty dark down here in the trail dust of everyone else. But we’re by no means dishonoured or forgotten by God. It was the land of Naphtali that God Himself came and lived in, taking the low place, at the end of the line. The humble King, down and dirty in the trail dust along with even the last of us all.

So this is “my” tribe. Naphtali. A doe set free. Abounding with grace and blessing. Eaters of trail dust. Followers of the Lord.


What is a lodge?

Americans seem to have a lot of these weird groups, and I’m still not sure what they are. There are Shriners and Elks or Whelks or whatever they call themselves, and there seem to be a lot of others, too. Maybe the Knights of Columbus; I know nothing about these beyond the name and that they are Roman Catholic. “Lodges” seems to be the usual generic term, but it’s one that doesn’t hold a lot of meaning for me. A “lodge” is a beaver’s dwelling or a communal house in a tribal society. Or possibly a ski châlet or Mediaeval hunting cabin.

My first encounter with the phenomenon was with some fez-wearing strangers collecting money, encountered shortly after we came to the US.

“What are they collecting for?” I asked my American wife. “And why are they all wearing Turkish hats? Are they some sort of religious cult?”

“They’re Elks,” my wife explained.

“Huh?” And internally:

Elk (n): A wild animal of cervine kind. In North America it refers to the local subspecies of Red Deer; in Europe it refers to the animal Americans know as Moose.

“Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks”. Puzzled look. “It’s a lodge”.

“You’re not helping me. Why are they collecting?”

Years later, and I still have no idea who these strange “Elks” are or what they’re about or why they think they deserve my money, nor really what this whole “lodge” phenomenon is.

I don’t think we have anything like this in Britain. Well, apart from the Masons, maybe, and they keep a distinctly low profile. You’d never, ever see Masons out collecting in an identified group; it defeats the point. If you’re a Freemason, no-one’s supposed to know about it except other Freemasons. So I don’t actually know if these “lodge” things are anything like the Masons or not, because the Masons won’t tell anything about their organisation to any non-member. Would they be defined as a lodge? I don’t know. I think so, but I can’t be sure.

It all looks rather suspicious from the outside, particularly as no-one I’ve asked seems to be able to give me a good answer for what a “lodge” is. You hear the phrase “Masonic lodge” mentioned occasionally in Britain, but public Freemasonry is as oxymoronic as dry water. Or “law-abiding criminal”. These Elks and Shriners and so on do public things like collecting money as if they are some sort of charity, but Freemasons, as far as I know from the UK, shun the limelight with a passion.

Sort-of-but-not-exactly-Freemason is no recommendation to me. Freemasonry is one of those things which the perception in my country – at least in the churches I attended – was that it’s not compatible with being serious about following Christ.

I don’t buy this whole satanism/Illuminati/secret-world-rulers-of-this-present-darkness conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the idea that you can be a Mason and follow Christ with a whole heart. Where is your allegiance really? To the organisation or to the Son of Man? You cannot serve two Masters.

And the whole secret-society thing the Freemasons have going is suspect, too. I’ve seen Yes Minister. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby: “If they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong”. No accountability, no way to know what you’re really up to at all. “Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. Together with the persistent rumour that you’re supposed to do whatever it takes to help a fellow-member, up to and including lying, preferential treatment over a more qualified non-member, and bending the law if within your power, it gives the firm idea that you can either be a Mason or you can follow Jesus, but not both.

From the outside at least, Freemasonry looks way too close to the ancient mystery cults of Mithras and Diana to be anything compatible with worship of Christ. So the fact that so many of the US Founding Fathers were identified Masons (and what’s up with that? I’ve never heard of any self-respecting Freemason identifying themselves as one) does not encourage me about the depth of their touted Christian faith, I’m sorry to say.

And this whole American “lodge” thing looks a lot like more of the same. You call yourselves “Benevolent” this and “Fraternal” that? Fine. That’s exactly what I’d do if I were up to no good and wanted to throw people off the scent. No-one’s actually going to call themselves the “Secret Megalomaniacal Federation of World-Dominating Evil Villains”, now, are they? Who are you in reality?

“It’s just a lodge” is no answer for what you’re about. I have no clue what a lodge is! “It’s just a blongsnarf”. Everyone already knows this.

Not me.

I lack even the most basic knowledge. What is a “lodge”? Is this apparent semi-secret society open to anyone? How do you join? Why would you join? What do you do? Why all the apparent secrecy? Are these different “lodge” things all related, or totally separate? Are they national or local, or even international? Are they just for men, or are there women’s ones as well, or unisex ones open to both? Why wear a Turkish hat – do you think you’re a reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire? What is the society for? What’s it supposed to be for?

And these “Fraternities” and “Sororities” – are they more of the same? I don’t understand them either. We don’t have anything called that in Britain, or anything that looks like it might be that by a different name. And my American wife’s university didn’t allow them, so she’s almost as clueless as I am and can’t explain it.

From what I hear, fraternities and sororities are about drinking, promiscuity, ritual abuse, and possibly racism. But if that was their real purpose they wouldn’t be allowed anywhere. At least, I hope not.

And if I’m right in my suspicion that fraternities and sororities are kind of like a lodge for students, this reputation doesn’t make me any more comfortable with this strange lodge business in the adult world.

My working definition of a lodge now has to include heavy drinking, possible promiscuity, racism and ritual abuse, as well as secrecy, lack of accountability, ultimate allegiance to an organisation that won’t tell you what they’re up to or who’s a member, and probable bending of the law and morality when it benefits a fellow member. And silly hats.

Yeah. Like that’s something I want to give money to.

The response I normally get at this point is “no, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s… It’s just a lodge, you know?”

No. I don’t. I don’t have this word. I don’t have this concept. It’s just a… beaver’s house? Mediaeval hunting cabin?

Now will someone that knows more of what they’re talking about than I do please explain in terms someone that really has no clue can understand? In the most general terms, if you insist on your secrecy. I’m hopelessly lost on the basic idea here.