Monthly Archives: January 2012

Context is everything…isn’t it?

Context is a slippery thing.

It can be positive. If I say, ” I love wine” in the middle of a sermon about the wedding at Cana it makes sense. If I say the same thing in a sermon about Jesus healing lepers I sound like a drunk.   Context encourages appropriateness and understanding.

However, context can also be used as a way of ensuring that something directive has no power over me: “That doesn’t apply to me because it was a whole different situation”. Sometimes that’s true but usually it is a clause I invoke because I don’t want it to apply right now.

Christians invoke context a lot.  It’s understandable when you follow a Lord who seems to demand what feels like lots of impossible things from you. We call for context when Jesus says something that jars, that is hard or what I’d prefer not to do. It gives me a buffer between what I believe and how I behave.

The Sermon on the Mount has featured a lot in my thinking lately and specifically about how short I fall of its demands on the do not worry end of things.  In the midst of this pondering someone declared to their Facebook friends they’d bought a shotgun for home protection. I cheekily (so I thought) commented I didn’t remember that in the Sermon on the Mount. In response I was told that turning the other cheek didn’t mean letting a home invader murder you and that the Sermon on the Mount didn’t apply here because it was contextual.

Curiously, I hadn’t been thinking about turning the other cheek. I was tending towards the  more uncomfortable “do not worry” and “do not store up treasures that are vulnerable to moths, rust and burglars.”  Jesus knows we purchase the gun precisely because we worry that God will not protect our stuff. We worry that it will fall to us to take care of the important things.

Truth is if we wrote the sermon it would contain lots of conditional language to provide some understandable get out clauses when it got too hard. That wasn’t Jesus’ way. Jesus never obscured the cost and point of  being a disciple. Being transformed in our humanity means being free of what makes us less human and even less of a neighbour. Jesus liberates us from the way the world raised us. Jesus tells us:  “Be free from fear and self reliance. Be free to be charitable, to mourn, to be poor, to be a peacemaker, to be a neighbour and to trust.”

The Sermon is a theology of abundance. What can anyone take from you that God cannot restore?  Walter Brueggemann tells us in his excellent essay titled, “Liturgy of Abundance, the myth of scarcity”:

We who are now the richest nation are today’s main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity — a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly.

The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. The story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us.

What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.

The only context of the Sermon on the Mount is real life lived with a desire for God to transform us. There are no time constraints, rules of engagement or escalation. I am called to live in the world and refuse anxiety, to not live for my things and to know life goes on even if everything is taken from me. I can take precautions, be prudent and plan ahead, but I know I am not now, nor ever,  in control.

Advice to the young at heart

I had a bit of a jarring experience a couple of a days ago.

In the morning I read the news that middle aged people are mentally past their prime (45-49 year olds lose 3% of their mental capacity). I didn’t have a lot to start with, so that got me worried. In the afternoon I received my college alumni magazine. With my diminished mental capacity I read stories of fine young things preparing to take  the future by the lapels and shake it up and make it froth. I couldn’t help but feel like the old lions in the nature documentaries of my childhood who hear the roars of the younger lions saying, “you’re finished old guy, it’s our turn soon”.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that I was once one of those bright young things, eyeing up the oldies above me while contemplating how my generation was going to eclipse them. I’m pretty sure some 47 year old would look at his alumni magazine and see pictures and stories about us and feel exactly how I’m feeling now.

Middle age offers an opportunity to reflect on our experience, hopefully with some wisdom. The writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes did exactly that. He was rich, influential, older and reflective. He coined the phrase, “there is nothing new under the sun” and decides that a life of striving and grasping and believing in our own mythology is foolishness. He points out that after your demise enough time passes so that no one remembers you clearly, you leave your wealth to people you have no control over and believing your own press clippings can lead to a lot of self-absorbed stupidity.

Instead he advises the reader to just get on and live as if life matters now and makes a difference now. Don’t worry about legacies or influence or importance. Worry about whether your life will be judged worthy of the trouble God put into  creating you. Enjoy what you have, share your wealth with those who need it and don’t be snared by what seeks to enslave you.

I suspect that he is writing to his younger self.   As I read that magazine and thought of all the ambitions and hopes myself and my peers had over 25 years ago, I got to thinking about what I would write to my own younger self.  Here are five things that came to mind:

1. Never serve a system – serve the truth.  Your country will let you down, your politicians will let you down as will the the economy and the church and any other system you wish to name. Systems serve themselves first and will sacrifice you and mistreat you if it serves the system’s greater good. The truth, on the other hand, never asks for your obedience. It asks you to explore it and discover how it might be lived out for the benefit of you and the wider world. That truth might convict you to change, but only so that you might become a greater person rather than a lesser one.

2. The Gospel never changes but how we express it will always require flexibility and an understanding of the culture around us.

3. A relationship is not someone else striving to make you happy.

4. Avoid functional atheism. Parker Palmer in his book  Let Your Life Speak, says “…functional atheism, [is] the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.  It often leads to burnout, depression and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact…”

5. Just because you are well educated, it doesn’t mean you are the smartest person in the room. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, you win no friends by pointing it out to everyone.

As we all know, however, even if I managed to get this list to my younger self I would have scoffed at it and thrown it away. Still it’s good to know that I am not too old to learn a few new lessons.

Bright young things can become bright older things if they hold on to that spark of being glad to be alive and glad of having the opportunity to share that spark with a world in darkness. As inspiration to the rest of you that middle age is not the beginning of the end I offer you the words of Eddie Izzard, comedian, actor, experimenter with life and bright older spark:

My homes in London and LA are usually empty: they are not very lived in, but my body is. I feel very alive. I’m living this life and that makes me very happy.