Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do I mean by “heart”?

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

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Resolution

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. The whole thing plays just a little too much into the “trying to achieve something by human effort” thing for my comfort. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it works-righteousness, but it might be in that sort of a realm. As a follower of Jesus, it’s not really where I want to be going.

However, it occurs to me that “resolution” has another meaning: “the state of being resolute”. Determination. Drive. Ambition, even. Righteous inflexibility, perhaps.

I’m going to reveal how entirely unAmerican I really am by saying that I’ve always been suspicious of drive. I can seldom if ever hear “I’m a very driven person” as anything positive the way you Americans seem to; what I hear is “I’m a jumped-up martinet and my employees hate me”.

“Determined”, similarly, is a polite euphemism for “stubborn, obstreperous and probably argumentative”, and ambition always carries the subliminal meaning of “selfish ambition”.

I was actually complimented on my work ethic during one of the Christian discipleship schools I’ve done.  I shrugged and blushed, as I recall. As far as I’m concerned, the way I do things is applied laziness more than hard work.  I’m going to make sure I do it right the first time so that I don’t have to come back and spend more time doing it again, and I’m going to work hard at the task in order to get it done so that I can go and do what I want to do.  Applied laziness.  I don’t actually like working all that much.

Ambition has always seemed dangerously toxic for followers of Jesus. It carries unwholesome baggage of “putting yourself first” and trampling over other people in your quest to succeed. At the very least, the ambitious Christian is seemingly in danger of building their own kingdom, not Christ’s, and from there it builds into a pseudo-sanctified self-centredness at odds with the character of Christ. “Success” is the way of the world. Christians probably didn’t ought to be seeking it as an end in itself.

Except that the Bible doesn’t necessarily say that all ambition is bad. We’re told to avoid selfish ambition, but what if there’s another kind? Is it ok to be ambitious in the Kingdom of God?

Joseph had a dream about ruling over his brothers and parents. Paul was called to be an Apostle. Ambition? Perhaps, but a matter of fulfilling Divine calling rather than the drive to push oneself to the top. Maybe this is what an unselfish ambition looks like.

The thing is, I probably wouldn’t use the word “ambition” for it.

“Resolution”, on the other hand… Resolution I like. It doesn’t have the same baggage as the other words. It’s a positive, manly trait, though hardly restricted to just men in its expression. It’s more in line with the Biblical virtues of perseverance and patience than it is with the awful notions of drive and ambition as I tend to perceive them.

Resolution says that I need to keep going, keep trusting, keep holding on to faith, even when it’s hard. Resolution says that I can’t just give up and roll over. And Resolution says that there are limits to what I can bend myself around.

I’ve always prided myself on my mental flexibility. I can adapt fairly easily to strange cultures; I learn languages easily; I don’t often have a lot invested in my personal preferences, so if you want something different I’m usually quite agreeable.

But what I’ve had to learn is that there are limits. Wisdom does not consist in bending myself into whatever shape you want me in; there are lines that you may not cross. I want to be nice, I want you to like me, I don’t want to inconvenience you or put you out in any way. But I do have an integrity that you may not compromise, and it’s been quite a long journey in discovering that. I do actually have preferences and standards that I cannot compromise without negating who God has made me to be.

Learning to be inflexible where I need to be has always been more of a challenge than learning to flex myself and suborn my preferences to those of another. And this is where resolution comes in.

So if I’m making a New Year’s resolution this year, it’s to develop Godly resolution. To learn when not to flex, but to stand firm and strong. To persevere and to push forward where necessary. To cooperate with God in discovering that corollary of who He has created me to be: what I truly want.

Faith (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is one of a series of posts on the chivalric virtues.  I am identifying seven chivalric virtues as detailed in this introduction.


I was initially intending to talk about courage as the first virtue in this series. It’s how I numbered them when I was originally coming up with the list. However, I’m feeling particularly uninspired to talk about courage right now, so I’m choosing to focus this time on faith.

There’s some justification for doing so. After I published the introduction and its list of seven chivalric virtues, I realised that if I combined mercy and justice (something that many will probably think is weird, but I have my reasons) and separated Humility and Fealty, then I could indeed tie them to the seven Mediæval planets as an interesting and altogether quite apt secondary symbolic system. Faith would, under this schema, be associated with Luna, which is the first of the Planets in ascending order. It makes a certain amount of sense.  The list of virtues is thus:

  1. Faith (Luna)
  2. Courtesy (Mercury)
  3. Mercy (Venus)
  4. Largesse (Sol)
  5. Courage (Mars)
  6. Fealty (Jupiter)
  7. Humility (Saturn)

Faith in its Mediæval sense is a considerably broader and (I would argue) deeper concept than our modern usage would suggest. In our regular usage, the primary meaning of faith is religious feeling or belief. We talk about our Christian faith, and about other faiths.

Our secondary meaning is closer to the Mediæval sense, but still lacks some of the full meaning of the term. We tell each other to “have faith” in a time of crisis – to keep on believing that God is good and that He will come through for us.

It’s still all about belief, though.

Faith in the Mediæval sense is less about a mere “belief” (like belief in ghosts or ufos) and far more about trust.

The knight Roland‘s chivalric vows included vows “to keep faith” and “always to tell the truth”, which are far more about one’s character than one’s beliefs. Allied far more to the Biblical idea of faithfulness, faith is perhaps best thought of as integrity and its outworking. Keeping our word. Being holy, because of Whose we are. Actively trusting God even in the face of circumstances. This is no mere “belief”. It’s a solid trust that God is who He says He is.

In the Bible, faith and faithfulness are often the same word. If you have faith, in this sense, you will be faithful. Integrity stems from trust in God and produces trustworthiness. The inside matches the outside, and both match Reality.

But why tie this to the Moon?

In Mediæval thought, the Moon was on the boundary, both subject to change (like the human realm) and constant (like the heavens). Above the Moon, one was in the heavenly places, where God’s will is done perfectly as we are told to pray it will be here on earth. Below the Moon, there is doubt and uncertainty, things are not what they seem and God’s good laws can have disastrous effects on our fallen natures. Above the Moon, there is certainty and full knowledge, even as we are fully known. The Moon, in Mediæval cosmology, was the boundary.

Thus, Luna embodies the idea of faith. Here below the Moon, we may not know, we cannot tell. All we can do is trust. Here below the Moon, there is uncertainty and things are not as they appear, but as citizens of a heavenly Kingdom it behooves us to live with the integrity of the upper realm.

The Moon was said to produce wanderings, not only physical travel but in the wits. The word is “lunacy” for a reason: it was thought to be the result of Lunar influence. Spiritually, this reminds us that we live beneath the Moon as “aliens and strangers in the world”, and that faith can sometimes look like madness. This world is not our permanent home. We’re on a journey, wandering beneath the moon, though as Tolkien reminded us, “not all those who wander are lost”.

Here below, faith looks like lunacy. Not only trust in God but trustworthiness and integrity are sometimes considered ridiculous. (Can you be a successful salesperson or politician and tell the truth at all times? If not, why not?) Faith (not only trust in God but also integrity) requires us to live as citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom.  If the outside lived in this world matches the inside transformed into the image of God, then certainly we are going to look strange. We cannot but help look like lunatics if we are going to be true to ourselves as a new creation in Christ.

An episode in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair brings out what I mean. The two children, the newly-rescued Prince Rilian plus the gloomy but fundamentally honest Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum have been captured by an evil witch in Underland who is trying to lay them under an enchantment. Her siren-song causes them to forget their quest, forget Narnia, forget even Aslan Himself. But all of a sudden Puddleglum speaks up:

“You may be right. Your world may be the only world there is. But it’s a pretty poor world. WE may be just four babies playing a game, but four babies can create a play-world that licks the real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to live as much like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.”

He has kept faith. He’s true to the real Narnia even in the face of his own doubts of its existence. He speaks and acts with integrity and truth.

This is what faith is. Not “believing something you know isn’t true”. Not some mystical energy that causes God to do what we want, but being true to what is Really Real.