A simple answer for an extreme world

Ross Kemp’s Extreme World certainly brought to the surface a side of Glasgow that many might well have suspected existed, but perhaps not in the rawness that it was portrayed in this documentary style programme. What it also brought to light, incidentally, was the amazing work that is done by many people across the city who really want to help Glasgow become a better place and help its citizens find a better quality of life. Not least among those featured was Salt & Light, a ministry begun just over ten years ago by Anne McIlveen (Wallace, as she was then). Whatever the problems of Glasgow and whatever their magnitude, the situation would be much worse if it wasn’t for people like Anne and organisations and ministries like Salt & Light.

Glasgow is certainly not unique in the UK as a city with some huge challenges. I can’t imagine that a tour of, say, Liverpool or Manchester or Sheffield or even Edinburgh would reveal anything less shocking than what was recorded in Glasgow.

How we respond is the big question.

At one level, the call to address social injustice is very clear. There are injustices in our society. There is unfairness. The benefits system is at turns inadequate and unhelpful. Sometimes it appears that it completely fails those who really are in need, and at others, it seems to provide a disincentive to work.

I would suggest, however, that appropriate as it is to be concerned enough to do something about social injustice, that in itself is not the answer.

During the summer I read a novel by Leo Tolstoy. Not the big one! I happened to be browsing in the Kindle store and discovered one of his less famous works Resurrection (though in its day it was more popular than War and Peace and Anna Karenina) for seventy-seven pence. At that price I couldn’t resist.

The story concerns a young Russian prince, Nekhludoff, who has been called to do jury service. As the accused persons enter the court, he recognises one of them. She happens to be a young woman who had a few years earlier worked on his aunt’s country estate. The prince had seduced her and then abandoned her. He discovers that since then she has slid into a life of prostitution and now stands accused of theft. The prince is overcome with remorse, and to cut a long story short, gives away his property and follows her to prison in Siberia. Along the way he decides that, to find personal redemption, he will offer to marry her and work for the reform of the prison system and the whole of society.

In the end, she refuses to marry him, and the more he tries to change the system the more horrified he becomes at what actually goes on and the more frustrated he becomes by his failed attempts to change it.

In the end, after accompanying a British missionary who visits the prisoners and gives them New Testaments, he returns to his hotel room thoroughly disillusioned. Disillusioned by the cruelty of the system. Disillusioned at how those who want to change it can be just as cruel and heartless. And saddened that the young woman refuses to marry him. Nekhludoff’s world – like the Russia of Tolstoy’s day – was an extreme world. A very extreme world. And he felt powerless to change it.

He then picks up a New Testament and randomly begins to read from the beginning of Matthew 18. There he discovers the message of the Kingdom of God and from that night on his life is never the same again.

Whatever the precise message Tolstoy wanted to convey by giving this ending to his novel, he hits upon what I believe, and what I believe the scriptures teach, is the real hope for society: Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

A kingdom that is other worldly enough not to be enslaved to human ideology. A kingdom that is in essence the rule of God and therefore powerful enough to confront the destructive powers at work in our society and at the same time comfort those who have been most damaged and injured by those destructive powers. A kingdom that is not based on human might but one that is exemplified in a little child. A kingdom that is eternal and will prevail, because it is based on the death and resurrection of the Son of God.

That’s what Jesus sets out as the answer to Glasgow’s challenges and the challenges of any and every major city in this nation and throughout the world. And we as the church are the vehicle of that kingdom. That kingdom comes in the city as we feed the hungry, preach the gospel, heal the sick and live in a way that that is consistent with citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Our challenge is to keep the kind of childlike faith and hope and simplicity that enable the heart to receive the Kingdom and live in its life and power:

For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me. (Matthew 18.2-5, The Message)

Congratulations on being part of God’s answer to the problems of this world – an extreme world!

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Spiritual athletic identity

I recently heard an interview with Sam Ingram. If you don’t know who Sam Ingram is, he is the British paralympian who won a silver medal in judo. A silver medal in the Olympics or Paralympics is quite an achievement. However, in his interview, Sam spoke as a broken man. From his perspective, gold was everything and silver was nothing. He had trained hard for four years, and missed out on winning gold in games held in his own country. All his training and rigorous self-discipline was, as he saw it, for nothing.

My instinct with someone who is as disappointed as Sam obviously was, is to respond with something along the lines of “But you won a silver medal! How many people ever get to compete at an Olympics, never mind win a silver medal?” However, as the interview was taking place on the radio, I could not jump in with my pastoral wisdom. So I listened. And as I listened, I could sense that Sam really was devastated by the experience. In another place I read that he had said: ‘I am gutted. It feels like all the training I’ve done, all the physio I’ve done, all the hours I’ve had off my coach and all his time has been close, but no cigar”

Sports psychologists talk about athletes having an athletic identity. Some athletes see being an athlete as their true identity more than others. Those athletes are highly competitive but can experience problems when they retire because they can’t see themselves as anyone other than an athlete. This, according to the radio, was part of the reason Sam was so disappointed by what most people would consider a huge achievement.

The picture of an athlete competing in games is one found in a number of places in the New Testament. We run the race (1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Philippians 2.16). We are meant to throw off our baggage and run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12.1). But how do we handle those moments when it feels like we’re falling behind in the race? Or the times when it just feels as though we have tripped up and fallen over?

Should our desire to be like Jesus be so intense, so passionate, that even the slightest imperfection, the most trivial sin (I know sin is never trivial, but some don’t appear to have the impact that others have) causes us to grieve. Do the words of the hymn writer I hate the sins that made Thee mourn / And drove Thee from my breast express how we should feel? Or does that kind of response turn us into spiritual neurotics? Should we rather be satisfied that we are perfect in Christ, and regard with suspicion any frustration with our own performance since it might reveal that we are in reality relying on our own best efforts to make us like Jesus?

You could make a case for both from the Bible. Paul rejoiced in who he was in Christ and didn’t even judge himself (1 Corinthians 4.3-4), yet at the same time he could say that after he had preached to others he beat his body so that he wouldn’t be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9.27).

How can we live with a contentment and security in our perfection in Christ, but at the same time be highly motivated and disciplined with regard to our service?

Christians do have a spiritual athletic identity. We are supposed to be disciplined. We are supposed to care about our progress. We are supposed to be concerned about sinful baggage that holds us back (Hebrews 12.1-7). We’re spiritual athletes competing in the race of our lives! And because we are spiritual athletes, frustration at lack of progress is to be expected. Having a spiritual athletic identity will motivate you to serve God with passion and zeal.

But our spiritual athletic identity isn’t our only identity. It is not even our primary identity. Before we became athletes in team kingdom of God, we were declared sons and daughters of Father God. We became righteous in Christ. Not through anything we had done. And because it is not our primary identity, it means that we don’t need to be overwhelmed with discouragement and disillusionment when we don’t seem to be progressing as we would like to.

So don’t settle for spiritual silver medals. Serve God with conviction and zeal. Discipline yourself. Die daily. Die to self. Be intolerant of your sins.

But at the same time remember who you are. And remember Who gives you the ability to be in the team in the first place.

Mix contentment and conviction. Mix rest and restlessness. Combine faith and works. And in the end trust in His faithfulness. Unlike Sam Ingram, you will get your reward in the end (1 Corinthians 3.14-15; 2 Corinthians 5.10; 2 Timothy 4.7-8).

John could say: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

Overconfidence

Results of research conducted by the University of Southern California and the University of Edinburgh indicate that the key to success in most areas of life is, believe it or not, overconfidence. The research measured the impact of overconfidence in comparison to attitudes that valued accuracy and attitudes that could be described as underconfident. Apparently confidence is a far greater factor in being successful than talent or training.

It might be hard to swallow that kind of conclusion. After all, most of us have had some experience of the brash and bumptious personality that brims with confidence to the point of producing nausea in those around it. Consequently, our feelings about confidence and confident people can be a curious blend of envy and revulsion!

Our mixed feelings can feed into our approach to scripture and the sort of attitude that might be desirable for us as Christians. One thing is certain, confidence was certainly something that wasn’t lacking in the early Christians and, if ever there was a real or perceived deficiency in confidence levels, it was met with spine stiffening exhortation.

Peter and John and the other apostles witnessed boldly (Acts 4.31). Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly (Acts 13.46, 14.3). Paul was confident in his relationship with Christ and wanted all believers to share his confidence (2 Corinthians 3.4; Ephesians 3.12). He was confident in what God was doing in the life of believers (Philippians 1.6) And confident of where he was going (2 Corinthians 5.6-8). If you still think I’m kidding you, look at the occurences of confident / confidence in the book of Hebrews. Five occurrences (Hebrews 3.14, 4.16, 6.9, 10.19, 10.35, 13.6). Those are just where words that indicate confidence are used. There are many more passages I haven’t mentioned and many more where believers are acting with confidence even though their actions aren’t directly described as such. And that’s without looking at the Old Testament.

No, we’re not meant to be arrogant or brash. But we are meant to have the kind of confidence that is the fruit of faith. After all if you are a child of the One who created the universe and the King of Kings is your brother, it might be a little insulting to have a mentality that “needs all the facts” or is lacking in confidence.

A few years ago my wife and children and I were invited by our M.P. to visit the Houses of Parliament. It was a scorching hot summer’s day. There were queues of visitors and tourists that seemd to go on forever. You can imagine how good it felt to parade up to the head of the queue and explain that we were expected in the Houses of Parliament. We showed the security officers our invitation and they ushered us in as though we owned the place. How was it we were able to so coolly approach security and walk inside? Because of our relationship with our M.P. and her invitation to us to visit her at Westminster.

Our confidence is found in our relationship with God. Not only does Jesus represent us before the Father, we are actually family. Confidence in ourselves is misplaced and gets us nowhere, but confidence in who we are in Him should be natural for Christians, it should be our default attitude.

Whatever you think your ability is or however limited you think your experience is, there is no good reason not to be confident in Jesus. In fact, you have every reason to be overconfident in Jesus – not that you can ever be too confident in Him!

So don’t throw it all away now. You were sure of yourselves then. It’s still a sure thing! But you need to stick it out, staying with God’s plan so you’ll be there for the promised completion. (Hebrews 10.35-36)

Crickets and Butterflies

The name Huguette Clark isn’t one many people would recognise. You could trawl the celebrity gossip columns in back issues of newspapers and glamour magazines going back half a century or more and you will more than likely fail to find the name Huguette Clark.

Yet Miss Clark had a better claim to inches of newsprint about beauty and wealth than many, perhaps even most, of those who dominate those kind of headlines today.

The beautiful daughter of an industrialist and senator, she inherited a vast fortune. At some point, however, she decided that she wanted to retreat from the outside world. Then, in 1991, at the age of 85, she was discovered living in one room of her luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment. She used a single candle for light. Her feeble body was dressed in a soiled bath robe and her face that had once radiated such beauty, bore the ravages of skin cancer. She covered her mouth with a towel, not wanting to reveal the damage inflicted on her lips by ulcers.

The doctor who discovered her eventually persuaded her to receive medical treatment and she spent the next nineteen years of her life in a caring environment.

Despite making a good recovery, she never left the hospital for the outside world again. The doctor who originally found her in such need asked her why she did not want to go out. In response she simply read a poem about a cricket and a butterfly. It was a coded way of saying that she preferred the anonymity and security of being a cricket to the freedom of the butterfly.

Whilst everyone is entitled to make their own choices about how they live, you cannot help but feel that when someone with the kind of resources that Huguette Clark had decides to live a reclusive life, resources have been wasted.

Sometimes for Christians, even those who would claim to be Spirit-filled, there is a kind of spiritual reclusiveness that envelops their souls. It is tragic when that happens. Tragic, because not only do they not have the joy of seeing their gifts used to bless and build up others, the body of Christ is denied the priceless treasure that Christ has invested in that person.

It might seem like stretching the point a bit, but we are called to be more “butterfly” than “cricket”. We are more about freedom and boldness than restriction and reclusiveness. Just look up “boldness” in a concordance for the King James version of the Bible.

But there’s another take on this. In Mark 9.2 the Bible uses the word transfigured to describe what happened to Jesus on Mount Tabor when His inner glory was revealed and Moses and Elijah appeared to Him. The same Greek word is used in Romans 12.2 and 2 Corinthians 3.18 to describe our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The kind of glory that He exuded on the mount of transfiguration is being revealed in us. It’s not hidden. It’s revealed. It’s not locked up and reserved for the glory of our mansion in heaven or even reserved for the relative privacy of church meetings. Christ’s glory is replicated in us for the world to see. We are being morphed into His likeness.

And morphed is a very appropriate word to use, since the Greek word we translate as transfigured or transformed is the word from which the word metamorphosis is derived. And you don’t need a degree in biology to know that the term metamorphosis is used to describe the process of change that produces butterflies.

We might feel a certain security in chirping like crickets, but we were born for the freedom of the butterfly.