The Season of Giving

Every year, it seems as though there’s some aspect of the Christmas story through which God is particularly speaking to me.

Some years it’s been Mary and her faith-obedience to the word of God brought by the angel. Others it’s been Joseph and the idea of being a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the angelic “fear not” spoken to terrified shepherds. Some years the wonder of the Incarnation and pondering the imponderable mystery of God as a single cell in a womb.

Last year, it was the census. I seemed to be so busy last year that I never had much space to just sit down and quietly reflect on the events of the True Story of Christmas, and when I finally did (almost Christmas Eve), what God chose to focus me on was the timing of it all: census time, with everyone bustling around and moving from place to place, the threat of new burdens of taxation from an oppressive pagan government hanging over everyone’s heads. And into all the bustle and noise and stress comes a newborn baby Who is God’s answer to it all.

This year, the focus seems to be on the various gifts and the season of giving.

In some ways there’s a sort of inevitability about it. I’ve posted about generosity and giving quite a lot over the almost three quarters of a year I’ve been at this: here under the imprint of Calvary and Easter, here as part of my Chivalric Virtues series, and here as part of an attempt to rescue the word “liberal” from only denoting a political stance. And even that is only the times I’ve focused in on it; I know I’ve mentioned the subject in passing on several other occasions, too.

Christmas is, of course, well-known as a season of giving. There are the presents we give each other. There are the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers and the other various charities that we like to donate to at this time of year. There’s the story of Saint Nicholas, both in its original version and in the metamorphosed popular version as Santa, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Grandfather Frost or whatever you want to call him. There are the original symbolic (and costly) gifts of the Magi to the Christ-child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And there’s the ultimate Gift of God to fallen mankind: Jesus the Messiah.

Some of these are directly related to the True Story of Christmas. Others relate only more distantly, by association or analogy. But all of them combine around the celebration of the birth of the Saviour, and together they make Christmas the season of giving that it has become.

An alien from the planet Pluto arriving on Earth at Christmas time today might suppose that Christmas was created as a conspiracy among shopkeepers to sell more stuff. Certainly Santa and his elves seem in many ways to tie into this mammon-focused perspective, and it can easily become all about stuff and getting.

But even Hollywood pits Father Christmas against the corporate buying and selling culture of Get, and points dimly at something higher than the stress of shopping and the corporate bottom line.

Father Christmas, of course, has become so much a feature of our celebrations as to practically eclipse the True Story, but even he has Christian origins. Though he took on the visual aspect of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse personifications of winter, with beard and sleigh and reindeer and all, he started out as a Christian saint and bishop. His red robes were once those of a bishop of the church (Roman Catholic cardinals today still wear red), of Myra in present-day Turkey (there’s another modern-day Christmas word), which was then part of the Greek-speaking Christian world. He is remembered chiefly for his generosity, and had a particular eye to the welfare of the poor in his episcopal see. Giving gifts in secret, he is reputed to have left gifts of money in the shoes of poor young women, enabling them to have the dowry money they needed to marry according to the custom of the day. The reindeer and the sleigh are just camouflage, which itself seems appropriate for the original “secret Santa”, and the “Ho Ho Ho” seems very apt as we are told that “God loves a cheerful giver”. What better memorial for one of history’s chief proponents of generosity than laughter and jollity?

The early church began to give gifts to one another at Epiphany, the feast commemorating the journey of the Magi, held on the 6th of January. Later, in some cultures, the gift-giving moved to the feast of St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, and later still got merged into the more important holiday, or “holy day”, of Christmas.

The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given to Jesus because it would be unthinkable to travel for miles and miles to visit and worship a King of the Jews Whose birth had been announced by the stars themselves without bringing gifts. Really – here is someone so important that the heavens themselves turn out in bright array for Him, and you’re going to turn up uninvited with no gift? I don’t think so.

Symbolically speaking, gold was the most noble metal, symbolising kingship, frankincense was the basis of the sacred incense burned in the Temple and denoted priesthood and prayer, and myrrh was a costly perfume most often used as part of the embalming process to help alleviate the scent of dead person. In the words of the Christmas hymn: “Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and Sacrifice”.

But the gifts had practical value as well. Despite the jokey cards that suggest that something more “practical” like a baby bed or bottle, would be in order, unbeknownst to Joseph and Mary their ability to provide for their young son was about to be seriously compromised.

The necessity to flee to Egypt and become refugees meant that Joseph probably had to leave his carpenter’s shop and all his tools firmly behind. No time to go back and get anything; the life of the Son of Man is at stake here.

The gifts would have financed Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ flight into Egypt, bought the silence of anyone who might be tempted to inform Herod, and probably have helped establish Joseph down there.

I may look more at the Magi and their gifts in a successive post, but right now I want to turn my attention to the ultimate Christmas Gift: the gift of God to humanity.

Back at Easter I mentioned how generosity was one of the marks of good Mediæval kingship. Magnanimity was expected, and the size and value of a king’s gift-giving was a direct measure of the power and majesty of their throne. I mentioned that God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign, how it doesn’t matter that Calvary is something we cannot afford, because it is a gift in keeping with the scale of God’s majesty.

Now I want to apply that to Christmas.

God, the Lord of the Universe, Most High and Almighty Ruler of all, determines to give a gift to us. To you. To me. A gift in keeping with the scale of His Majesty requires a gift of infinite worth. And so the Most High God gives to us the costliest treasure He has:

The gift of Himself.

He comes down, born as a baby, incarnated into flesh, living as one of us, destined to die to pay the debt our sinful choices had made, the debt we could not pay.

This is the centre of Christmas. This is the Gift at the heart of it all, to which even Father Christmas points dimly. It’s a season of giving, because He first gave to us.


Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.

Probably the one of the knight Roland’s chivalric vows (from the Mediæval Song of Roland) that intrigues me the most is the vow “to despise pecuniary reward”.

This fairly closely matches my own attitude, but it’s scarcely a common one, particularly in our modern business- and entrepreneurship-worshipping culture.

The idea of payment is central to our Western democratic Capitalism: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The wealth of nations. The law of supply and demand. Entrepreneurship – the idea that you can start a new business and make good money doing it, and that that is always and only a good thing – is deeply embedded in American culture.

And it’s alien to me.

Not because of some transatlantic difference, but because of me. I’m what I describe as an “economics atheist” – I don’t believe in the worship of money. Not only that, but I mistrust and do not like the avaricious impulse that seems to be at the heart of it all.

When I was in Central Asia, my first language teacher gave me the local name Zhomart. Names in the local culture are almost as significant as they are in the Bible, and most of the time, when the locals rename a foreigner the name is very apt. The literal meaning of Zhomart is “generous”, and for a long time I puzzled over why this would be deemed so apt. My best friend (whose local name translated to “wing” and carried the connotation of support) excelled much more than I in the grace of giving. We joked a few times that we needed to switch names – he was the generous one, and I… Well, I wing it.

Looking at the Mediæval idea of largesse, however, and in particular the knight Roland’s peculiar vow, I’m struck by how very appropriate the name is. I don’t really care about making money. As long as I have enough, and so far I do, I’m really not that concerned with getting more.

This is perhaps not quite the true thrust of the vow, but the attitude of opposition to Mammon and holding worldly wealth lightly is certainly allied. The idea of despising pecuniary reward means not doing things with the idea of getting paid. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you’re going to get something out of it. The distinction being drawn is between the knight and the mercenary.

The knight is supposed to fight for what’s right. The mercenary will fight for whoever pays them.

The knight is concerned with honour. The mercenary is concerned with payment.

The knight fights for the welfare of all. The mercenary fights for the welfare of self.

The knight wants to serve. The mercenary wants to get rich.

The mercenary impulse seems overwhelmingly common in this day and age. The stock market dominates all. Buying and selling of goods, services, time and information transcend national boundaries and make the world what it is.

There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for what you do, but the Kingdom of God (and the knightly code, too) operates on a higher level than buying and selling.

The generous attitude of largesse stands opposed to the avaricious and mercenary impulses. Star Trek’s Ferengi, with their “Rules of Acquisition”, sum up the mercenary impulse; the First Rule is “once you have their money, you never give it back”.

Frankly, I find Klingons easier to understand. The whole business of acquisitiveness seems somehow… sordid. My view of money is more that it’s a necessary evil than that it’s a good thing in itself.

It’s a very knightly attitude, but I’m unlikely to ever get rich.

I’m fully aware that my attitude is fairly extreme, and probably unrealistic on a large scale, but I do think we could all do with a bit more largesse.

What would the world look like if corporations were a little more concerned with doing the right thing than doing the profitable thing? What would it be like if we could stop being afraid of not having enough? What would happen if we learned contentment when we have enough rather than a continual desire for more?

Largesse, simply defined, is open-handedness. It resists the thinking of the modern corporate world that “money isn’t the most important thing – it’s the only thing”. There’s nothing wrong with having money, or getting paid. But money is a terrible master even if you have it, and it’s one of the few things that can get a hold of you without you getting a hold of it.

Even on the left side of the political spectrum, we often act as though money is everything. What is the redistribution of wealth but an attempt to use money to fix all our problems? I find it instructive that the one false god we never put a name to is the only one that Jesus named: Mammon. Mammon is the opposite of largesse; the idea that “money is the only thing” or that “only money can make things happen” or that “only money can help”. Trust in the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty God.

Largesse is generosity, the cure for covetousness and avarice and the cause of thankfulness. Holding wealth lightly, able to give where needed, and not seeking payment as an end in itself.

Payment, of course comes in multiple forms, and coin is not the only currency there is. The mercenary impulse also manifests in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mindset that can result in false expectations or a reciprocal rather than generous outlook.

In our teaching on husbands and wives, we’re often told that “men need respect, women need love”.  Like, men don’t also need love, and women don’t also need respect?  Or the idea that “men give love for sex, and women give sex for love”. The idea often comes across, even in Christian teachings, that when a husband does something nice for his wife, like helping with the housework or buying her flowers or something, that she’s supposed to reciprocate in the bedroom.  (If I hadn’t heard it myself, I’d think this was a straw man argument, but…)

While it’s true that no wife is going to feel interested in sex on a Saturday night if you’ve been being a jerk to her all week, the reciprocity at the heart of this idea bothers me.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I think it’s in danger of turning our wives into whores. If we have an expectation that they will do something nice for us in the bedroom if we do something nice for us around the house, how is that not sex for payment?

Man up, guys. You signed on to an equal partnership when you got married, and part of that is doing your share. Caring for your wife. Doing nice things for her because you love her, not for some kind of payment. Giving her the respect she deserves (Proverbs 31:31). Largesse in the marriage relationship.  Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s part of being a man by the code of chivalric virtues.

Historically, the Mediæval planet Sol, the sun, was associated with largesse and liberality. Solar deities were often associated with dragon-slaying, and in the Western tradition dragons hoarded gold and gems. If dragons personify Mammon and greed, the dragon-slaying Sol is appropriate for the opposition to Mammon characterised by the virtue of largesse. Let us, like the sun, not hold onto our “light” but shed it abroad, freely giving as we have freely received.

The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I have a deep-seated love of the ideals of knighthood. Elsewhere I’ve half-jokingly said that I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body of a 21st-Century nerd.

I like the idea of chivalry, in its full original sense combining valour and courtesy in a single system. My concept of manhood is largely tied to the knightly ideal.

It occurred to me that I might have a look at the chivalric virtues and how we might apply them today, in the post-modern world of cynicism and mistrust.

Why do this? Isn’t the whole idea of chivalry rather sexist? Not to mention antithetical to the ideals of democracy and capitalism. Why waste time on such a Quixotic project?

I’ll admit that this is largely for my own benefit. In choosing to cleave to the ideals of knighthood, it behooves me to have a clear sense of what I’m aiming at. But I have had vague thoughts for a while now on the notion of seeing if I could work out some kind of teaching for children, and probably in particular boys, based on the chivalric virtues. Tilting at windmills is not part of the plan.

The allegation of sexism is more serious. I’d argue that it’s applicable to the debased form of patronising courtesty that the word “chivalry” has come to mean rather than what I have in mind. I’d have no problem with the idea of a woman choosing to live by this sort of code without sacrificing her femininity. The Middle Ages even had a term for such a one, coming to the age from the Vikings: the “shield-maiden“. Arwen Evenstar in Lord of the Rings, or Guinevere riding out with spear and shield to rescue the young Arthur is a good example of the type: not an Amazon (in Greek, literally “without breasts”) – a woman who sacrifices femininity for valour – nor a damsel in distress, but balancing femininity with chivalric honour.

I’d argue that our ideas of “strong” and “weak” have changed enough that women are no longer automatically to be viewed as “weak” and in need of a (male) rescuer.

Firstly though, of course, we need to define which virtues we mean. At this temporal distance, it’s hard to tell whether something is authentically one of the Mediæval chivalric virtues or whether it’s a modern anachronism that happens to look good. No doubt they will need some updating (as above, for example), but if we’re going to do this, we should do it properly and start with an authentic list.

Is there such a thing?

Investigation reveals that there are numerous lists of chivalric virtues compiled by different authors, and that they vary considerably. The Chanson de Roland (or “Song of Roland”), one of the definitive works of chivalric literature from the period, lists seventeen vows that the knight Roland makes, forming the core of chivalry as it was understood.

But seventeen is an awfully big and particularly unsymbolic number. Can we distill them down to a more manageable and memorable list of virtues?

Other contemporaries certainly did so. Some list as many as twelve chivalric virtues, others nine or seven, others as few as four.

There being no single definitive list, it seems I can use my own judgement. Trust the soul of the knight within, as it were.

The seventeen vows of the knight Roland were as follows:

  • To fear God & maintain His church

  • To serve the liege lord in valour & faith

  • To protect the weak & defenceless

  • To give succour to widows & orphans

  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence

  • To live by honour & for glory

  • To despise pecuniary reward

  • To fight for the welfare of all

  • To obey those placed in authority

  • To guard the honour of fellow knights

  • To eschew unfairness, meanness & deceit

  • To keep faith

  • At all times to speak the truth

  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun

  • To respect the honour of women

  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal

  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

By a process of comparing these vows with other existing lists of chivalric virtues, I have distilled it down to the following list. I should note that this is not a definitive list, because such does not exist. It’s my personal list, and you are welcome to take it or leave it.

  1. Courage

  2. Faith

  3. Mercy

  4. Justice

  5. Largesse

  6. Courtesy

  7. Fealty

There. The astute reader may be surprised at a list of chivalric virtues that does not include the most basic knightly quality of honour, but it appears to me that honour is so inextricably tied to so many of these other virtues that I would contend that the virtue of Honour arises from all of the other virtues together, or itself gives rise to them all. The chivalric virtues, then, describe what honour looks like.

I plan to take a series of posts, probably intermittently, and look at each one of the virtues invividually, but in this overview, some idea ought to be given of the scope of each one. Meanings are not always obvious, and I’m deliberately using some words anachronistically rather than in their modern shades of meaning.

This, then, is how I understand these named qualities:

Courage is one of the more readily understood qualities, including not only physical bravery against material threats but also moral courage, the willingness to stand up for what is right even if no-one else is and the willingness to face up to an uncomfortable truth. Its opposite qualities are not only cowardice but bravado – making a show of boldness to hide one’s true fear.

Faith, on the other hand, has a considerably broader meaning than our modern usage would suggest. Faith to us implies first and foremost the idea of religious feeling. Belief in God. In Mediæval thought, however, it’s not belief alone but trust which is at the heart of the idea of faith. An individual of faith not only exhibits an active trust in God, but shows trustworthiness and trusts those who merit it. He or she gives the benefit of the doubt, though is not blind to the fact that some are indeed faithless. She or he keeps their word and acts with integrity.

Mercy covers Roland’s vows of protecting the weak and defenceless, giving succour to widows and orphans, and fighting for the welfare of all. In the words of one definition, mercy is “seeing a need and wanting to help”. And then being moved by that desire into action.

Justice covers a lot of familiar ground, just like courage. It’s tied to faith in its Mediæval sense – acting with integrity and righteousness – but goes beyond, into the idea of proactive standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Largesse is a deliberately old-fashioned word. It’s mostly the same as generosity, but it goes beyond that idea. It’s tied to magnanimity and graciousness as well as generosity, and is the opposite of covetousness and avarice. In Roland’s vows, the idea of despising pecuniary reward – doing things not for payment but because they are the right thing to do – encompasses the notion of largesse.

Courtesy is the most similar to what most people think of when they hear the word “chivalry”. However, I am not meaning an empty formalism or condescension, but an attitude of consideration and restraint. The knight Roland’s vows to respect the honour of women – particularly needed in light of #Yesallwomen – and to refrain from the wanton giving of offence encapsulate the idea. We do not go out of our way to offend people, similar to the Biblical injunction not to put any stumbling-block in anyone’s way.

Fealty is another Mediæval word, like largesse, involving respect for authority and knowing one’s place in the order of things. I am expanding it here to include the related idea of humility as expressed in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” It goes downwards as well as upwards, tying the one in authority to the one under authority as surely as the other way around. In modern terms, it’s expressed in the ideas of loyalty and allegiance, acknowledgement that you are part of something greater than yourself, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Seven virtues, which if I wanted to be really Mediæval I could tie in to the characters of the seven Mediæval planets: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But while several of them are easy – Courage would go with Mars and Fealty with Jupiter, for example – other relationships are not so clear. So perhaps I won’t.

Edit: It occurred to me some time after publishing this that if I combined the virtues of Mercy and Justice (weird on the face of it, but see here), and separated Humility out from Fealty, that I could get a one-to-one correspondence between the Mediæval planets and my list of chivalric virtues. Which makes a nice (and very appropriate for the time period) secondary symbolic framework to hang this list on, so I might tweak my list enough to do that.

The revised list, with its planetary correspondences, would be as follows:

  1. Faith – Luna

  2. Courtesy – Mercury

  3. Mercy – Venus

  4. Largesse – Sol

  5. Courage – Mars

  6. Fealty – Jupiter

  7. Humility – Saturn

I will explain these correspondences more over the course of this series.

What Did You Learn From Your Father?

Whenever Father’s Day rolls around again, it seems like someone in my church circle asks this question.

It’s a good question, because a lot of what we learn from our own fathers can frame our understanding of God as Father, but it also seems in some ways a very American one.

Americans are obsessed with the father-child relationship. It comes into almost every film an American has had a hand in, from The Empire Strikes Back to Despicable Me. It would be interesting to speculate on why this is, but in this post I want to actually answer the question.

The contrast between the sorts of responses I’ve typically given to this question and the sorts of responses I’ve heard from almost every American I’ve heard give an answer are striking. They are different enough, in fact, that in answering this question I tend to feel more like an alien than at any other time except perhaps the Fourth of July.

In my experience, the number one thing Americans say about their Dads is Hard Worker.

There are various forms this takes, but in essence it’s the same. The value of hard work. Always working around the house. Doing whatever was needed to keep things working.

It’s not that my Dad was lazy, but hard worker simply isn’t what I most associate with him and what I consider I learned from him.

So while everyone else is talking about working hard and putting in an honest day’s work, I’m talking about how Dad would never let other people’s opinions slow him down, about generosity, about knowing what you want and then going for it wholeheartedly.

Dad’s never been afraid to be in a minority, even a minority of one. If he knows he’s right, the whole world can be against him and he simply doesn’t care. He wants to do the best thing (at least, as far as he sees it), and whether that is simple or very hard is nigh-on irrelevant.

When making decisions in a group setting, the absolute worst thing you can say to him is “we’ve never done it that way before”. Say that, and it’s a virtual guarantee that that will become the way he wants it. Other people’s opinions, whether current or filtered through the overarching structure of tradition, simply don’t matter to him.

It’s given me a unique perspective on the world. I come from a country famous for being attached to its traditions, but my father would seem to break traditions just to watch them explode, especially if he could see a better way.

His desire to do the best thing carries over into his generosity. As a child, I knew our family weren’t made of money. There were things I might have asked for for Christmas some years that I didn’t want badly enough to ask my parents to pay the massive price tag involved (a Grifter bike like some of my friends had was what I can currently remember). I figured that I could ask for it, but I probably wasn’t going to get it, so why go through the motions?

I do remember one year, though. I was completely obsessed with lego, and Space lego was a brand new thing. These were the original blue-brick sets with grey wings, yellow-tinted windows and a gold planet logo on the front. The spaceman figures came in all-red and all-white suits only (though they later introduced first yellow and then blue-suited spacemen) and specially-shaped bricks were the minority rather than the norm.

The ultimate set of these original space lego kits was the big Space Cruiser. I can’t remember how much it cost, but it seemed like an exorbitant amount to my child brain.

I can remember calculationg to myself, “Well, I’m pretty sure the Space Cruiser is out of reach, but I might be able to ask for the next one down, the Space Transporter.

The Transporter was pretty cool-looking. It had a little moon buggy thing that came out of the back of it. (So did the Space Cruiser, but they didn’t show it on the box so I wasn’t aware of it). I would have been well satisfied with the Transporter.

Come Christmas Day and the opening of main family presents in the afternoon, I unwrapped the big present from Mum and Dad to find… The Space Cruiser itself. The big mama of all the original space lego sets.

I actually thought at first that they’d got it by mistake, thinking it was the smaller Transporter. The two ships were alike enough in appearance that you could get them confused. Had they got it for me thinking it was the smaller set I’d asked for?

But no. This is my Dad’s generosity at work. I got the Space Cruiser I had really wanted but hadn’t dared to ask for.

He’ll spend whatever he needs to spend (within reason) to get something that the recipient will be really happy with. If that’s a small amount, that’s what he’ll spend. If it’s a big amount, he’ll try and find a way to make it affordable.

Stack that up against your hard worker for what my father taught me about God.

The biggest thing I learned from my Dad, though, the one thing he tried to impress on me, was “you can do anything you set your mind to”. High expectations? Yeah, but in fairness, not unreasonably so. I was a lazybones as a kid, and more critically, hadn’t a clue what I wanted. I know it must have aggravated him; his whole mindset was geared towards knowing what you wanted to achieve and then wholeheartedly working toward it, not letting anyone tell you you couldn’t.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and was brainy enough that I didn’t often need to make much effort in learning things. It carried over into a tendency to coast and drift, and Dad was determined that I wasn’t going to get away with it.

This is as close to the value of hard work that my Dad got. But it was more about working smart, using all of your powers, putting the effort in to make something of yourself.

I never had to deal with the situation some people describe, though, where they want to be a chef or a journalist or whatever and their father was determined that they should follow in his footsteps and join the Army. Dad made sure I always knew that the decision about my future was mine, not his. He just wanted me to hurry up and make it.

Whatever I decided, once I’d really made my decision, I knew that he’d back me, even if it wasn’t the one he’d have made. (If it wasn’t the one he’d have made, he’d try to talk me into his way of seeing, but it was almost like he wanted you to fight him sometimes. Like his opposition was more of a test to see how badly you wanted something. If you were willing to argue with him over it, you had the right level of commitment.)

Give him credit, too; the rules he laid down were always negotiable if you could present a good case. If it really wasn’t working, he was always willing to revisit it. Responsibility, not rules, was what drove him.

So this is what I learned from my Dad. Independence, Generosity, Commitment, Responsibility.

The really interesting part is when you make the step to think about what those imply about God.

I learned that truth is not a popularity contest. I learned that God doesn’t care about What Everyone Thinks as much as he cares about Doing The Right Thing. I learned that God is more generous than we sometimes dare to ask; that He’ll do whatever it takes to bring us an eternal happiness that will not fade. I learned that He cares about commitment. And most of all, I learned that He is not a rules mechanic. He doesn’t want legalism, He wants our hearts right with Him. He couldn’t care less about the religious niceties of our “do this”es and “don’t do that”s. He will, in fact, sometimes bust those wide open just to watch them explode.

A happy Father’s Day to all. I’m off to enjoy the day with my own father. For once I have him here with me.

With Liberality

At least in this part of the States, American Christians so overwhelmingly align themselves with the political right that there’s a perception that you can’t be a Christian and not be a conservative. (I should point out that this is Texas, however, and in the last election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, most Texans voted for Quark of the Ferengi.)

“Liberal” has come to more or less mean “evil”, and is associated with all those things that Good Christians Don’t Support. You hear “so-and-so is dangerously liberal” or “Christians shouldn’t support their liberal agenda” or other things. As far as usage goes, you could substitute the word “bad” or “evil” with little difference.

But regardless of your political leanings, “liberality” is a good and useful word, and it does not deserve to be have a lot of the associations it seems to. I’d like to explore some of this original spectrum of meaning.

Liberality in its traditional, non-political sense is first and foremost about generosity. The King James version of the Bible translates Romans 12:8 as “Let him who gives do so with liberality”. Generously. Not with a measure, no matter how big the ladle. “Liberal” itself derives from the Latin word for freedom, and with this in mind we are brought to Jesus’ challenge to us: “Freely you have received. Now freely give.”

God’s generosity expressed in His grace to us is not measured, but lavish, measureless, disproportionate, not counting the cost. He doesn’t dole out His favour with a teaspoon, nor even by the bucket. Unconstrained in the resources He is able to deploy, He is truly free in His giving and His favour, and He calls us to the same liberality of spirit.

Liberality was also traditionally connected with the idea of liberal study – that which desires knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing rather than for some practical purpose. This is to all intents and purposes the opposite of a modern education, which is intended to be useful in the job market, always having in mind the goal of producing competitive worker bees and salary-earners. It’s instructive to note that CS Lewis, in his Narnia chronicles, often describes his witches and evil magicians as being “very practical”, by which he means that they are only interested in things or people if they wish to make use of them. This utilitarian “practical” streak is the opposite of liberality; the liberal pursuit of knowledge will not be constrained by ends and use and profitability, but with the higher goals of expanding the field of human knowledge. Knowledge not for an end, whether economic or poltical, but on its own terms, following the evidence wherever it leads.

Now, obviously we need both. All the high ideals of the world won’t put bread on the table. But it seems to me that at the moment we’re much more in danger of losing the idea that the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself is a good thing.

It’s obviously difficult to be truly liberal in our pursuit of knowledge. Everyone has an agenda, whether stated or unstated, conscious or unconscious. Even me. But perhaps if we held our agendas a little more loosely we might avoid some problems.

Thirdly, and by way of its first meaning of generosity, liberality is the antithesis and cure of the plutonic, covetous impulse. Freedom from the captivating desire to possess and to own; it is able to use worldly wealth without being mastered by it. St Francis of Assisi was radical in this regard. If we are to be masters of our money and not servants of our mammon, we must cultivate liberality. Freedom to give, open-heartedness and peace, in the place of the shrunken, close-fisted, avaricious spirit that always wants what it does not have and cannot be content.

Then, too, liberality does not consider the objects of its generosity, but bestows wherever there is opportunity. Like the rain, which “raineth on the just and on the unjust”, like the sun which sheds abroad its light to both the good and the evil among men. This is another trait that I would venture to suggest is desperately needed in our society, particularly as Christians. We’re so often so caught up in what we do and don’t support that we lose sight of the sheer grace of giving. To give without an agenda, just to bless… Isn’t this how the Lord gives?

So here’s to liberality.

A Condition of Blessing?

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

Giving to God shouldn’t be this complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.