Follow the fire

As my particular tradition is not given to celebrating feast days and saints’ days, with the notable exception of Easter and Christmas (and of course, for those of us with some green blood, 17th March), I had completely overlooked the fact that today, Monday 27th January, is the feast day of St. Angela Merici. You might find that you have overlooked this feast day as well.

St. Angela’s claim to fame is that she said “No” to her spiritual leader, Pope Clement VII.

The story goes that Angela had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became ill on the way. The illness resulted in blindness, but she still completed the pilgrimage and returned home. On her way back she recovered her sight. When she returned home, the Pope asked her to take over the leadership of an order of nurses. It was at that point that she famously declined the Pope’s offer.

It wasn’t just that she didn’t fancy the job, or didn’t like the Pope. Angela had been troubled for years by the lack of educational provision for girls, girls who were neither rich nor had entered religious orders. Having returned from pilgrimage she was now determined to do something about it. Perhaps the Pope’s request helped her to sharpen her sense of calling. Or perhaps in the darkness of her temporary blindness the light of revelation and vocation became more intense. Who knows? Her determination resulted in her bringing together a team of women to teach uneducated girls in their own homes.

Angela was not the first and won’t be the last Christian to have felt the inner drive of God’s purpose and calling. Nehemiah refused on four occasions to meet with the enemies of God’s people. His reason? ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ (Nehemiah 6.3)

Paul, described his calling to Agrippa as follows  ‘So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.’ (Acts 26.19) Another calling that emerged after a period of temporary blindness.

You don’t have to be a Paul or a Nehemiah or even an Angela to feel the fire in your heart. And because the fire in your heart isn’t compelling you to national prominence, doesn’t mean that it is any less the fire of God. The heavenly vision for you might be a compulsion to volunteer in a local social action project. Or help out at an Alpha course. Or teach Sunday School. Or begin to reconnect with friends and family members with whom you have lost contact. No two fires are the same, just as no two hearts are the same.

But two things are sure. The fire within you demands a “Yes” to God. And sometimes it requires a “No” to other possibilities or people, even to people whom you might love and respect.

As an African preacher once said “Follow the fire!”. If you do, you never know, you might just turn a dull and wet January day into one that has lasting significance.

Happy St. Angela’s day.

Growth Mindsets

Failure of top athletes to perform to their maximum potential in important sporting competitions has long puzzled observers and generated no end of research. Why is it that people so obviously gifted and teams with real talent fail to turn their ability into trophies? A recognition that the “hair-dryer” treatment is not always the most effective way to help an individual or team raise its game, has meant that sports psychologists are employed to help sportsmen and women maximise their performance.

One explanation of failure to perform to the level of one’s capabilities, is that some sports people are battling a fear of failure. Fear of failure is usually connected to perfectionism. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, approaches the problem in terms of two mindets. Some people have a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset tend to think that they have a range of fixed abilities. They’ve learnt  all they can, and , therefore, if they fail, there is not much hope for the future, because clearly they are simply lacking in ability. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset see failure differently. They see failure as an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to improve and sharpen their abilities.

After Gideon’s famous victory with his army of three hundred men against an enemy of many thousands he still found that some were reluctant to support his cause. Judges 8.10 states that one hundred and twenty thousand enemy troops had already fallen in battle, leaving only fifteen thousand, as Gideon pressed for total victory. Yet when Gideon sought help from the people of Succoth and Peniel, they refused to be involved with his action, even to the point of withholding food from his men (Judges 8.4-8).

The most obvious explanation for their inaction is that they were frightened that Gideon might still be unsuccessful and they would be subjected to reprisals. Seven years of hardship and enemy occupation had scarred their psyche to the point that even resounding success could not persuade them that an ultimately favourable outcome was likely if not inevitable. They were captive, you might say, to a fixed mindset. 

Fixed mindsets are all too common in church world. Even though the stakes are nowhere near as high as they were for the people of Succoth or Peniel, many Christians appear to have a fear of stepping out in faith. Why? Presumably, in case they fail. And if they fail? That would prove the weakness of their faith. Or their inability in the first place. Or cause them to lose face. And if you have an outlook that says your faith / ability / confidence, etc., is fixed, then you find yourself locked into your own inherent weakness. Failure becomes the key that locks the door on future success.

But what if failure was the key to unlocking the door of future success? What if we developed a mindset which said “This is an opportunity to grow”? I think whole knew horizons of possibility would open up before us.

I would go further and suggest that Jesus and the apostles worked on the basis of a growth mindset in the way that they developed people. The disciples got it wrong time and again, yet on every occasion Jesus taught them something new and important. Their ignorance or inability was not fixed. They could grow out of it. Peter’s failure before the crucifixion became a doorway into a deeper appreciation of the grace of Christ.

You could sum up much of the content of Paul’s letters as “here’s what’s good, here’s what’s bad and here’s how you can become more like Jesus”. Growth mindset.

Failure isn’t the end of the world. With the right – biblical – approach, it can be the beginning of a better one.

Making Memories

The term making memories has come to be used as a kind of shorthand for expressing meaningful moments that will live with us for some time to come. Apparently it was originally used by Coca-Cola in an advertising campaign to convey the idea that the dark fizzy drink will make whatever you are doing meaningful and memorable, provided it has a part in the moment. At least, that’s what the Urban Dictionary says.

Whatever the truth or legend behind the association with Coca-Cola, as we grow older, good memories of good times become more important for us.

God has good memories as well. That might seem a very shallow thing to say. It is, however, true. God is sometimes presented to us as remembering certain people or certain things. He remembered Noah. He remembered His people Israel. It’s not as though God had forgotten about, say Noah, during the flood, and suddenly realised that He had left him and his family drifting across a waterlogged world. No, it is simply a way of reinforcing that God had not forgotten Noah and would act on His behalf.

Hebrews chapter 6 similarly speaks about a God who does not forget:

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them (Hebrews 6.10).

A big temptation and a big danger that we all face is a phenomenon Paul describes in Galatians 6 as growing weary in doing good (Galatians 6.9). Why might we get “fed up” with doing good? Because it can seem pointless. It can seem like our best efforts are making very little impact. Our concern is met with indifference.  Our kindness with ingratitude. Our love, ignored.

The Hebrews scripture reminds us that whatever the response of others to our doing good, God remembers our action. When we do good, we make a memory that we share with God. In truth, He remembers all of the love that we show to others. He remembers the good deeds we have forgotten. He remembers the good deeds that we weren’t even aware we were doing. And He remembers the good deeds that seemed of no consequence or were even rebuffed.

Let’s not grow tired of doing good. Even if no-one else sees or appreciates our action, we’ve made a memory that we share with God.

God doesn’t need to explain Himself

Sir David Jason has played many roles, both comic and serious, with great aplomb. One role that most of us would never have expected him to play is that of moral commentator. In a recent interview he commented on Miley Cyrus and how she was impacting the moral standards of the nation. Whether the said pop star is as morally influential as Sir David thinks she is, it is perhaps an indication of the moral climate of our times that Sir David feels the need to comment in the way that he did.

Truth be told we’ve been in a bit of a state for a long time. And no, Miley Cyrus is not to blame.

When all is not well, or we sense that all is not well, we often seek an explanation. We ask the “Why?” question.

In Judges 6, we find Israel in a very difficult situation. Almost completely overrun by her enemies. A prophet reminds the people that unfaithfulness to God has brought about the difficulties they are facing. It seems, however, that his words fall on deaf ears.

Sometime later the Angel of the Lord, appears to Gideon. Threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from Midianite invaders reveals Gideon’s mindset as much as it reveals the direness of the nation’s difficulties.

The angel’s affirmation of Gideon, addressing him as “Mighty Warrior” is met with an outpouring of cynicism and even a little self-pity from Gideon. Gideon has heard all about God and how powerful He is, but what has He ever done for him? And anyway, his clan is the weakest in the tribe and he is the least in his family.

You might expect God through His angel to address each of these issues. After all, what Gideon has said more or less casts a slur on God’s character and ability. And then there is Gideon’s crippling self perception.

God, however, doesn’t address these issues, at least not directly.

He provides no explanation as to why things are the way they are and why He hasn’t acted in the way He did when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt. He doesn’t refer back to the prophetic word. Or to the law of Moses. He doesn’t try to justify Himself. He doesn’t need to – He’s God!

He embarks on no examination of Gideon’s character. He doesn’t probe Gideon’s cynicism or the reasons why he doesn’t see himself as a mighty warrior. Instead He creates expectation: “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand ” (Judges 6.14) and promises that He will be with him – whatever his identity issues!

Trying to work out why God did or didn’t do something. Or why He allowed or didn’t allow something is pointless if it stops us from taking action. Christians are full of opinions. The web is full of opinions about God and why He did or didn’t do something. Why people get healed or why they don’t get healed. Why somewhere was struck by a hurricane. Why the nation is the way it is. The best that you will get from asking those questions is some sort of answer that you are comfortable with. But it won’t change anything. In fact, the only thing it will change is you! It might make you more proud!

And endless quests to work out why we are the way we are or what we think we are or what others think we are or what we think others think we are, is, likewise, pretty futile. Self awareness is no bad thing, but if it doesn’t lead to action…

The thing that matters is that God sees us as part of the solution and He puts that expectation on us. It’s good to wait on God, but if you’re waiting for an explanation you’ll wait a long time. God doesn’t need to explain Himself.