Boldly going

I was never a Trekkie. I had friends who were Trekkies. They could quote lines from episodes and the films. I’m afraid I have never watched the films either. I can almost feel a twinge of guilt, perhaps even shame, at making such a confession. Apologies Trekkies, I’m just not as cultured as you might have thought. Unfortunately my knowledge of quotable quotes from Star Trek can mostly be found in the 1987 spoof song Star Trekkin’ Across the Universe.

Still, despite my lack of appreciation for Jim Kirk, Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise, they did cut out a place for themselves in our cultural history that will outlast many other sci-fi series or films. Not many will ever discover new worlds or split infinitives the way the Star Trek team did.

Back in the real world, the phenomenal success of Star Trek left its actors with a very big problem: they became typecast. Apart from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (Kirk and Spock), most of the cast became so associated with the series that they found work hard to come by forever after. Even the good captain and his Vulcan deputy struggled. They had become so unhelpfully identified with the roles they played that it was hard to imagine them as anything or anyone else.

Typecasting isn’t just a problem for – ironically – successful actors, anyone can struggle with a kind of conscious or subliminal typecasting that associates them with certain behaviours or attitudes.

In the book of Chronicles, in one of those long genealogies, lies tucked away a character called Jabez. Jabez was so named because of the painful way in which his mother brought him into the world. Pain. His name was associated with pain. Mr. Pain. Mr. Painful. Mr. Pain is a pain. You can begin to imagine the wordplays and send ups on his name. Not exactly the most auspicious start in life. It’s one thing for people to put labels on you as a consequence of your own actions, but to be born with a label firmly embossed on your forehead is another thing.

Somehow, by the grace of God, Jabez refused to be typecast. Here’s what we are told about him:

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (1 Chronicles 4.10)

The preceding verse explains that Jabez was more honourable than his brothers.

The Message translates:

Jabez was a better man than his brothers, a man of honour.

He was honourable and he cried out to God. He didn’t allow himself to be defined by what his mother – no doubt in her pain – had put upon him.

Typecasting doesn’t become insurmountably restricting until you typecast yourself. By cultivating personal excellence in our relationships with those around us and crying out to God for Him to write the script of our lives, we can permanently break out of the restrictions imposed on us by others.

To do that takes faith. It takes courage. But if you are prepared to boldly go…well you know.

Flying further

Migration is an aspect of life for some members of the animal kingdom that continues to fascinate researchers and naturalists the world over. Migrating animals focus so intently on their purpose that it is almost impossible to distract them.

One pattern in particular that has intrigued observers is that of wild geese flying in v-formation. Accumulated study has shown that the flight shape is advantageous in itself; birds flying in v-formation can fly over seventy percent further. Not surprisingly, a goose that tries to break away from the formation soon feels the drag of flying alone and quickly rejoins its companions.

Research has also revealed a finely tuned set of social relations between the members of a flock of wild geese in flight. The leadership of the v is rotated, so that no one bird is taking all the strain of the headwind. The birds honk to encourage each other. And if a bird drops out through injury, two others will drop out of the formation until the other bird recovers or dies. They don’t abandon their wounded. There is an incredible sense of not only team work, but being a team. In fact some would say wild geese operate much more like a family.

You can, I am sure see where I am going with this. What a picture of how church should be! Most Christians believe that they were born to fly, perhaps not literally, but they feel that their experience of God and life should in some way mirror the exhilaration and freedom of a bird in flight. We want to soar like eagles. It was, after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free. According to Psalm 124.7:

“We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.”

What we don’t often recognise in our individualistic Western world and in our individualistic sermons that encourage us to be all that we can, is that, together, we can fly further.

To do that we need a sense of team that goes beyond being a team, a sense of team that feels like being a family.

Paul said in Ephesians 5.21:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

J.B. Phillips translates this verse:

“And “fit in with” each other, because of your common reverence for Christ.”

Working with each other and for each other. Encouraging each other. Taking turns to take the strain. Having such a sense of connection and direction that anyone who tries to go it alone finds it a real drag. And stopping on the journey to pick up the wounded. Fitting in with each other, because of our reverence for Christ.

Wild Christians flying in v-formation all the way to our eternal home. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Celtic Christians called the Holy Spirit An Geadh Glas, the Wild Goose.

We might want to soar like eagles, but if we want to fly further, we need to fly like wild geese. Why not honk a bit of encouragement to your fellow flyers?

Keep your head

A newspaper or news bulletin headline usually has to be either pretty shocking or report something very unusual to attract my attention. I suppose the same goes for many of us. We are sated with news stories from around the world and it sometimes feels as though we just can’t process everything we see and hear and some stories, though worthy of response at an emotional level, fail to penetrate the hardened shell that has built up around hearts and minds.

However, the resignation of General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA was one that I found very sad.

Petraeus is one of the most outstanding soldiers of his generation. He is widely accredited with developing new and effective methods for fighting terrorist insurgency, field tested in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His thirty-seven year military career is described as glittering. His success in the theatre of battle seemed to be matched by a happy marriage and family life. At one point he was even tipped as a future president of the United States. Sadly, it all fell apart. He admitted to an “extra-marital affair” and an “error of judgment” on his part.

Of course, there are people all over the world who are in far greater need and suffering far more severely than the disgraced general. Nevertheless, there is something very sad – and perhaps sobering – when a reputation built up over a generation is completely undermined by a bad or a series of bad decisions. Just as a building that took months or even years to build can be demolished with the right explosives in seconds, so a reputation established over many years can be gone through a rash decision.

King Joash was one of the better kings of Judah. He had been rescued by his aunt from the murderous intent of his wicked grandmother Athaliah. He had been mentored by the High Priest Jehoiada, and in the early years of his reign he had set about repairing the Lord’s temple. The restoration project ran on for over twenty-three years. During that time Joash changed the way that finance was administered to ensure the success of the project. He was a faithful king who had the right priorities.

Then, one day, Hazael, the king of Aram, attacked Jerusalem. 2 Kings 12.17-18 records:

17 About this time Hazael king of Aram went up and attacked Gath and captured it. Then he turned to attack Jerusalem. 18 But Joash king of Judah took all the sacred objects dedicated by his fathers—Jehoshaphat, Jehoram and Ahaziah, the kings of Judah—and the gifts he himself had dedicated and all the gold found in the treasuries of the temple of the LORD and of the royal palace, and he sent them to Hazael king of Aram, who then withdrew from Jerusalem.

You could argue that he did the right thing. He spared Judah war with Aram. He saved Jerusalem from siege. But I can’t help feeling there was a failure of faith here. No record of seeking the Lord. No prophet requested to find out what God is saying. Instead he takes three generations of wealth plus all that he had accumulated for the Lord and the nation himself and pays off the king of Aram. One decision and the amassed wealth of four generations is gone. Without a sword being lifted. It looks like Joash, great king and all as he was, simply lost his nerve.

Sometimes our biggest challenge is to hold our nerve. To keep our heads. Kipling’s poem If is often quoted in this context. You can look that one up for yourself. Let me leave you with the words of the apostle Paul:

But you, keep your head in all situations (2 Timothy 4.5).

You need the right environment to produce the desired result

Climate change and environmental disasters are never too far from the headlines these days. Most of us could name at least some of the hurricanes that have wreaked havoc across the world, not to mention the tsunamis that have wrought so much devastation in Asia.

However, one of the geatest environmental disasters of the last hundred years was one that took place in America and it lasted throughout almost the entire decade of the 1930s. It is known as the Dust Bowl. Drought, soil erosion and dust storms or “black blizzards” left what had previously been fertile farming areas in parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma as a dust bowl. Crops died. Livestock perished. People were forced to abandon their farms. What should have grown and flourished there, no longer did so because the environment undermined the very best attempts of farmers to farm their land. It doesn’t matter how hard or how carefully you work your land, if the environment isn’t right all you most diligent efforts will come to nothing.

There was an era in church life when you could find lots of sermons, books and articles with titles that began with the words Keys to…. You can still find these kinds of talks, but I don’t think that they are as popular today as they used to be. Perhaps we have found the “three easy steps to…” an approach that feels a little bit shallow in the face of the complexities of life, even though these kinds of talks did often set out good solid biblical principles.

I am sure that many sermons have been preached over the years on the subject of living in victory over sin. And I am sure that, on occasion, the strategy was laid out in terms of a number of keys. Romans 6 certainly lays out principles that are crucial if we are going to live in victory over sin. We need to know who we are in Christ. We need to know that we died with Him and have been raised with Him.

And on the basis of what Christ has done we need to count ourselves dead to sin and offer our bodies to Christ. And there you have it. Boom! Done and dusted.

Well almost. It’s just that often we forgot Romans 6.14:

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

We forgot that for commitment to Christ to flourish we needed the right environment.

The Greek word translated “under” literally means subject to the power of. We are not subject to the power of God’s law. We are subject to the power of God’s grace. It is important to note that “law” here is not a reference to religious traditions but to the real thing, the real law, as in ten commandments law. The law, good as it was, only defined sin and condemned sinners (Romans 3.20). Grace, on the other hand, enables sinners to become saints and enables saints to live the life – to be like Jesus (Romans 5.17).

We can work out and work through all the Romans 6 principles that I set out above, however, if you believe and practise counting your self dead to sin and offering your self to God without realising you are under grace, you might just find that you are trying to live by grace in an environment of law. It’s like planting crops in a dust storm in a long dry summer. It will yield very little fruit.

How else can you explain the experience of Christians who have worked through freedom courses and discovering your new identity courses and yet they still feel condemned? Still beating themselves up. Still more sin conscious than grace conscious. If you don’t recognise that God has brought you into an environment of grace, you might as well be trying to grow crops in the Dust Bowl.

What does an environment of grace look like? It’s an environment of favour (2 Corinthians 6.2). People who have really discovered grace know that God is for them. It’s an environment of peace (Romans 5.1). People who have discovered grace, have found God as their friend. It’s an environment of love (Romans 5.8). People who have discovered grace are secure in God’s love and secured by God’s love. It’s an environment of freedom (Galatians 5.1). They know that they are free from the penalty and power of sin. And they know that they are free from the demands of the law.

When we pursue our relationship with Jesus and our commitment to Him in an environment of grace it makes all the difference. All the difference in the world.