Gift or Reward?

ParentingSupport-1600x600So often I see links across things that seem to others to be totally unrelated. Maybe it’s the sort-of-skewed way my (unofficially autistic) brain works, like an internal synesthesia. The main way this occurs is in lessons I find myself applying from theology to politics, (or sometimes vice versa), or in seeing patterns in scientific phenomena that reflect the mind of God; the problems within quantum mechanics portray the paradoxes in scripture. Stuff like that.

What I do not see so easily is how certain politicians try to apply a verse or two of scripture to justify a political position that is at direct odds with biblical teaching. So many of the things that are held up as ‘Christian values’ are at best only selective to the detriment of ignored ones, or just plain false! Knowing full well the difficulty of trying to apply theological concepts into the complex society we occupy, not least being that the majority around us are not followers of Jesus, let me suspend that skepticism for once and offer what surely must be the most basic and fundamental principle of our Christian gospel: grace!

The gift

Pocket_Money1I was sitting watching a daytime phone-in show with my mother, who has to stay with us for a period to recover from her latest stroke. The question being asked was “should your children work for their pocket money?” The usual reasons given were that children must learn not to expect ‘something for nothing’ and be taught that work brings reward. Fine. Fair point. Then I remarked to my mother; “we didn’t have to work for our pocket money, Mum! You and Dad just gave it to us without a condition, but I remember doing a reasonable share of the chores around the house. I recall Dad throwing me a duster and saying that we should tidy the house for you coming home. I was to dust and he hoovered. I didn’t object.”

So in my childhood, I wasn’t made to work for my pocket money, but that never made me lazy or caused me to grumble about chores (well, I was a child, so I’m sure I grumbled a bit, but I never refused to do work around the house). Why was that? Did my parents not spoil me by giving me unconditional pocket money? Some friends thought I was spoilt, since I got gifts from my parents even right between my birthday and Christmas! However, they did not just give me anything I demanded; they had limits and boundaries. They were great parents, very giving and generous, but not spoiling. I learnt the value of money and of my good parents. I strive to reassure Mum now that looking after her in her old age is just repaying all the faithful years she gave me.

Heavenly parenting

That is how it is also with my heavenly Father. Mum and Dad did not raise me ‘in a faith’ in God; I discovered Jesus for myself. I knew very quickly, I recognised this ‘Good Good Father’ since he was my good parents times a million! How generous is he? The gift of eternal life, freely given, with no preconditions, for someone undeserving as me. Those of us who have experienced grace must surely grasp it! Our Father is not a pushover, he does not spoil us, he has his limits (it’s called sin!), so I know I cannot just do as I like and not displease him. Just as I felt shame when I displeased my earthly parents, so I also feel shame at sinning. No shame, no relationship, I say. But on top of that, there is the most incredible, all-encompassing, belief-busting, incredible truth of grace that all sins in my life are forgiven, without condition! My salvation is secure. What is insecure is my closeness to God: that is down to me completely since there is only one flawed member of this relationship. He desires nothing else but my fellowship with him and his presence in my life: obedience to his commands is the best way for me to maintain that.

Not by works

The single most repeated phrase within evangelicalism regarding the preaching of the gospel of Christ is that salvation is not by works:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast….

Ephesians 2:8,9…

I realised that my willingness to help out around the house (not gleefully, I’ll admit, and seldom without direction from Mum or Dad) came from a sense of responsibility, not a desire for reward. It was because I belonged to this family, where I was loved and nurtured, and provided for. It was simply borne from gratitude. My works were not to gain something as low as money, nor even my parents’ approval or love. I already had that in bucketloads! They were a response to the love…

… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

… Ephesians 2:10

The works I do as a Christian must come from a sincere heart that simply wants to please my Father, and not even to ‘repay’ God for the gift of the Son crucified for me, since we know we can never repay that. Just as my mother does not expect any sort of ‘repayment’ for her parenting, so our Father God knows in his infinite wisdom that we mere mortals can never repay Calvary!  That is the Debtor’s Dilemma i.e. why should I think I must repay it? [which John Piper covers very well in his book Future Grace].

‘Remuneration theology’

As I pondered the debate on the TV, I realised that if I had been taught to earn my pocket money, then when Dad threw that duster my way, I would have replied “what are you paying me?” In other words; “what’s in it for me?”, and right away I saw the flaw in this ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ mentality. A society built on the sole principle of reward is not one of love, giving, volunteering, sacrifice, common cause, or altruism, but a collection of individuals all grasping for their share, asking one another “what’s in it for me?”Milton-Friedman

Seeing an old interview of Milton Friedman, one of the chief architects of the recent outing of the old heresy masquerading as ‘free enterprise’ and a ‘pure’ form of capitalism, I clearly heard this attitude in his words, as he vaunted self-interest and the desire for personal gain as the paragon of human endeavour and mocked ‘virtue’ as never having achieved anything! I truly could not think of anything less Christian than that! Not in the light of the gift of grace!

People often talk of sin being disobedience towards God. That is it in a nutshell, so when I realise that I am not forgiving and loving everyone I meet, even my enemies, I am disobeying Jesus’ direct commands. That is sin! Imperfect me fails this test over and over,… but I’m getting there. In all my dealings with those around me, whom I encounter every day in my life (and on t’internet), I have to be a living example of obedience to those amazing and compelling, yet devastatingly difficult, words Jesus spoke on that mountainside in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. If  we are to apply ‘Christian values’ to our nation, our society, to the world around us, is this not the archetype? We are to love unconditionally, as we have been. We are to forgive any wrong done to us, unlike the unforgiving servant, who was cleared of an almighty debt, yet failed the test. Believe me, I don’t want to write these words! Life would be actually easier were I to just follow the herd and agree that there are people I am perfectly entitled to hate, and join in the chorus of disapproval, and reject and dispossess them of what they have to claim for myself. But that is a false gospel; it is a direct contradiction of those awkward commands in favour of an agreed accommodation with the world that we can behave just like those who have never known the grace of God.

We cannot!

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In accepting that Jesus has my best interests at the forefront of his thoughts and intentions as he gives me these commands, then giving up those ingrained cultural principles, and maybe some cherished feelings of animosity towards others means that I can exchange my tiny box for his huge one, and trust it is worth it when he asks me ‘deal or no deal’!

The Christian message is not one of rewarding good behaviour, it is one of creating right behaviour in response to the gift of love.

Grace be with you.

The Shepherd’s Voice

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‘Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.’

– John 10:1-5

The Religious Right have not only falsified the transcript, they’ve altered the recording!

I bang on about the Religious Right a fair bit, I’ll admit. It’s all through my blogs. Chiefly because I feel I’m one of a minority within evangelicalism that recognises just how insidious and malodorous their political doctrine is, and that they are winning the cultural war for the hearts of God’s people. Jesus explained to the Pharisees in the passage above how a sheep knows it’s master’s voice – that of the shepherd, and Jesus goes on to say that he is both the gate and ‘the good shepherd’. His sheep know his voice and must listen for and follow only him; he gave us some warnings about false voices: Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. (Matt. 7:15).

Why is it, then, that sometimes we get distracted and listen to other voices, mistaking it for his? You think we don’t? It’s very easy, actually, when you think about it. Too often we vaunt someone as a great church pastor or leader and ascribe to them and their voice a divinity that we must follow, since we wish to look up to them and emulate their ‘holiness’ – we do not hear Jesus’ voice audibly (at least only very occasionally – I’ve only heard it once!) but we do hear others clearly. Being able to discern when a preacher is talking with the words of Christ and when not (since they are imperfect and cannot always do so), is vital for us to have a closeness to The Way and a relationship with The Life that equips us to do the discerning. How? fairly easily, actually; by reading the gospels. The words of Jesus are there in black and white (and in some bibles even highlighted in red), and if we read them and heed them, we get to know his voice, and thus we can stop ourselves listening when we hear another voice pretending to be holy. Such an occurrence was the basis for my very first blog!

If you haven’t really read through them, why not try the Sermon on the Mount for starters? From the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel to the end of the 7th, picture yourself sitting or standing on that mountainside listening to the authority that this man spoke with as he laid out his blueprint for his kingdom and how we must live in it. If you really think it through and try to apply it, it will blow your mind with its radically unnatural way of viewing things that is so against our human nature, but so divine!

So it is also with political voices! We have allowed certain pundits to make two issues the only political points that they try to tell us that Christians need to be concerned with; abortion and same-sex marriage, to the detriment of practically every other issue or manifesto pledge or ideology. And so many have arisen who pay lip service to these mantras, whether they truly believe in denouncing them or not, to get the ‘Christian vote’: They start to sound like they hold ‘Christian values’. Before you know it, you’re hanging on every word they are saying, convincing yourself that they must be Christian values too!

A Facebook Friend altered a photo I posted very easily and reposted it for me; you’d think it was an original photo but it was false. Videos can now be doctored to portray something false too; films can be made with actors long dead portrayed by CGI programming. There must be software that can alter voice recordings and make it sound like someone is saying words they never said. When I realise that some politicians are actually not even paying lip service to these great Christian political pillars that they must do to be part of the circle, yet I hear of Christians following them, thinking they are speaking as with the mind of God, that is when I know that they are not just changing the wording on a transcript but are altering Jesus’ voice to make it sound just like them!

Once you know your own bible, and read the words of Jesus over and over to yourself, then you can compare the statements of those you are asked to vote for, and know when you are hearing a reflection of his voice coming from anyone else. It’s really only a matter of ‘What would Jesus say?’Trump-Bible-620x371

Grace be with you.

21st Century Paraphrase: James 1:27 (true religion)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27 NIV)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the rich and those who already have all they need and to keep oneself from being put off trying to emulate them by the bleeding hearts. (James 1:27 21CP)

Who is my neighbour?

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It would appear that the commandment ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ which goes right back to Leviticus (19:18) has always drawn the question “who is my neighbour?” as if we all want to be sure that we can include those we want to love and exclude the rest. Many commentators often try to whittle down the possibilities to produce a smaller category. Isn’t that what we all want? There are plenty of people around that I just have no desire to show love to! I do not like being told to extend my loving embrace beyond my own circle! It’s only human nature. Meeting that question head on, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (which has come to be lost on us to some extent since we no longer view Samaritans with the same contempt that first century Jews had). Though if you wish to take a deeper thought from the parable that I never realised myself, take a look at the ‘grammatical tweak‘ Jesus performs.

Reading a daily devotional from my own church the other morning, I was struck by a thought. The devotional highlighted a legal statement made under tort law (which seeks to define cases eligible for civil lawsuits). It came from Lord Atkins in a 1932 case, where he answered that perennial question ‘who is my neighbour?’ in a very concise and helpful way:

“The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

If we accept this very concise and very apt description, then practically everybody we coilovemankindme into contact with is our neighbour, whom we are to love. This could be anybody that any ‘act or omission‘ on my part would affect, so not even offering a smile to someone could be an omission by me that otherwise would have affected that person: Even that person who cut into my lane last week and nearly swiped the entire wing off my car. I can assure you I did not give her a smile!

If you think this only applies to acts you do, not ‘omission’ of acts you did not do, think again:

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

James 4:17

Though I’ve long known that the above is the true definition of my neighbour (and I have grave reservations about anyone trying to narrow it), I now realise that in the 21st century, this must go even further! Social media has turned the ‘global village’ into a thriving metropolis. Those who used to be people we sent emails to in order to be faster than traditional ‘snail mail’ can now be easily messaged or tweeted instantly, at any time or place in the world (with internet connection). I can raise someone up or put them down with my all-powerful words, and that someone could be a total stranger to me thousands of miles away. Only now they are no longer a stranger, they are my neighbour! I have forged relationships with new people on Facebook, friended friends of friends, and entered into lengthy debates over faith and politics with other commenters on various blogs, articles or Facebook posts. I have maintained relationships with people I no longer meet in person, and rekindled old ones. This new world of communication makes our need to be salt and light all the more potent, dynamic, consuming and precarious! Especially when you consider the pitfalls of the absence on social media of non-verbal communication!!

May we consider carefully every word we type and ‘send button’ we hit!

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Grace be with you.

What do they mean; ‘unelectable’?

I come across this word in the media every now and then. It is applied to Jeremy Corbyn, and to a lesser extent to Bernie Sanders in the US (but maybe I just don’t see it stuck on Sanders as often due to geographical location). I wonder what they mean. It would imply that a nation just could not elect them to the top office, yes? Then I think; “hold on, if enough people cast a vote for them, they will be elected!” and realise that ‘unelectable’ could not mean what it says. Who would be truly unelectable? My neighbour’s cat! As far as I know, and I’m pretty sure I’d be right, you have to be a human in order to stand for election; other than that, I’m hard pressed to think of any other reason. Even a prisoner languishing in jail can stand!

No, they must mean something else. They must be stating that to elect such a person, one would need a whole nation of eejits or at least enough people of a very low IQ to make such an election possible. Then I think; yeah, there are plenty of those voters around. Donald Trump, for the best example, would require a very large mandate from uninformed airheads in order to beat the ‘unelectable’ tag. As would Nick Griffin. For me, to a slightly lesser extent, would be Nigel Farage. However, I’ve yet to come across the label being applied to them! Is this an attempt to preempt our thinking and make us believe that certain politicians are really someone we, the people, must not vote for, since they are just quite simply in that category: unelectable!?

As far as I recall, we are in the democratic Western world. We can elect whomever we like. We do have a vote to use in an election, and can use it regardless of any label or slur or ridicule anyone else applies to our chosen candidate. Trump may seem to me to be ‘unelectable’ but the truth is that, were enough US citizens  to cast a vote for him (were enough Republicans to have nominated him), he could become the next President of the USA! Therefore he is certainly not unelectable. He’s an absolute moron, and probably has the potential to be the most dangerous politician of the 21st century, but he’s no more unelectable than anybody else. Just like Adolf Hitler! Anyone who can vote for him is welcome to, if they so choose; that’s democracy.

As for me, I shall choose to vote for whomever I choose to vote for, whether or not they carry an ‘unelectable’ label chosen by someone else!…. No! Hold on! I forgot for a second there that I live in the totally disenfranchised political backwater of Northern Ireland, where the choice is between Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck (or Goofy if you’re brave enough). I’ll probably just write ‘NONE’ across my ballot. Again!

Grace be with you.