Category Archives: Grace and Law

Love in action: a mother’s cry


Mother and ChildI wrote last week about the grace Victor Hugo captured in his novel, Les Miserables.

I cannot describe such unconditional love in action more effectively or more beautifully than does Helen in her post: “The Tantrum Queen“. (The picture is hers). Please head over to her blog, Are we nearly there yet? and read what she has written from the heart.

Helen has also given a very helpful interpretation of Psalm 139, which I also encourage you to ponder over.

Do click on the links and be blessed.

What stories of grace do you have to share?

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Les Misérables and the folly of grace


Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess we each have a picture of grace: what it looks like, how it operates and, of course, its limitations. Yes, I know, grace isn’t supposed to have limits, but we have to be practical, surely?

In God’s economy grace doesn’t wait for guarantees or require a deposit. But we’re not so sure about that, either. After all, we can’t just offer someone free pardon and hope they make amends. What if they ignore the responsibilities that go with our gift? What if we’re left with nothing because we’ve ‘invested’ in the wrong person?

Although he rejected the Christian faith, French writer Victor Hugo seems to have understood grace better than most. He may not have practiced it any better than we, but he captured it beautifully in his epic novel, Les Misérables. We were reminded of Hugo’s profound view of grace when we went to see the filmed version of the musical recently.

Victor Hugo had apparently seen grace in action in the Bishop of Digne, Bienvenu de Miollis, on whom he based his character Bishop Myriel. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel’s unconditional grace turned Jean Valjean’s life around, with extraordinary results.

Of Bishop Myriel Victor Hugo writes, ‘The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ The Catholic writer Theresa Malcolm says, ‘Monseigneur Myriel. . . is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness.’

Bishop Myriel takes the vagrant Valjean into his home, feeds him and gives him a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing his silver and fleeing into the night. When the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop with the unlikely tale that the Bishop had given him the silver, the Bishop agrees. ‘That’s right,’ he sings.

But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these (candlesticks) also.
Would you leave the best behind?

After the police have gone, he says to Valjean:

The silver candlesticks‘Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’

The context of Hugo’s grace is a society fraying at the edges and stretching to breaking point. The film version portrays more starkly than the stage production can the vast number of people existing at the edges of society. We see the depth of their poverty, misery and, above all, despair. And despair is echoed in the songs.

In the opening song Jean Valjean sings,

‘I’ve done no wrong, Sweet Jesus hear my prayer,’
To which the other prisoners reply,
‘Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.’
And they end with the cry of despair:
‘You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave.’

Later the poor sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
And the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill;
And the righteous hurry past,
They don’t hear the little ones crying
And the winter is coming on fast
Ready to kill,
One day nearer to dying.

Which brings us back to the limits of grace. Our expression of grace is usually limited by two things.

We are afraid of the size of the problem: it’s far too big for our meagre supply of grace, our few candlesticks.

And we are afraid of what people will do with grace if it’s given too freely. They may take our candlesticks and run, never looking back. We would have wasted the candlesticks, instead of using them for others more deserving.

We stall because we first measure out the cost of grace against its benefit. What will the return on our grace be? Perhaps chastised for his unseemly hoard of silver, the kindly Bishop was willing to put it to good use. But to chance it all on a single throw of the dice? To give it all to this one undeserving thief?

Perhaps the Bishop knew more about grace than we do. Perhaps he had experienced for himself what undeserved, extravagant grace can do. Perhaps he knew also that grace is not mass-produced for mass distribution to mass markets. Grace works best when delivered with care in personalised packages, under great risk.

The Bishop knew he could do very little for the masses of poor and desperate who live outside of hope, and who sing:

Nothing changes, nothing ever will .
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill.
Same old story. What’s the use of tears?
What’s the use of praying
If there’s nobody who hears?

But perhaps he also knew that God has always preferred to ‘invest’ in individuals rather than in the crowds. He delights in what an individual can do when she or he responds to grace with love and mercy.

‘Love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples.
‘Yes, Lord, we can do that.’
‘As I loved you.’
‘You mean, without limits?’
‘Without limits.’

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Reclaiming Christmas with Grace


Tinsel town?“Mine! Mine! Mine!” squawked the gulls in Finding Nemo.

“Mine! Mine! Mine!” I hear Christians cry as a marketing frenzy warps the Christmas message; as the god of our consumer society replaces the mystery of the Christ child with the clamour of the cash register, the jangle of canned carols and the lure of the sale.

“Christmas is mine,” we say as we seek to reclaim Christmas and redirect the celebrations from the Santa of the shopping malls to the child of Bethlehem.

The “spirit of Christmas” is spread liberally around, but the mystery of Christmas is lost in the clamour. I can understand the frustration of Christians who denounce it all, give up the fight and choose not to celebrate Christmas at all.

But is that really an option? Can we opt out of the celebration, of this time of remembering? Can we pretend it didn’t happen, as some do? They say 25 December was a pagan celebration anyway, so it’s not Christian to celebrate. But, whatever date we choose, sometime during the year we have to stop and recognise the incredible gift of our incarnate Immanuel–God with us.

All rushed outOthers just want peace and quiet, to be able to celebrate the coming of Jesus in meditation and prayer, without the requisite gift-buying frenzy. Ah, what bliss that would be.

But would we? Would we remember at all, if the rest of the world wasn’t involved? Unless we worship in a church that uses lectionary readings, the great festivals of the church generally pass us by. How many of us celebrate Epiphany, or even the Ascension? And Pentecost? My guess is that we only celebrate Pentecost because it falls on a Sunday.

I know it’s a mad rush, I know the world’s involvement raises expectations and anticipation of an entirely materialistic nature. I know that we are so rushed by the commercialisation of the season, that we have little time to think of the meaning. But on this day, shared with pagans, perhaps, but on this wonderful day, we invite the world to stop, to reflect, to notice Jesus amidst all the tinsel and the jangling and the food. On this day, we say to the world, it is all because of Jesus, because of the most wonderful gift of all. Most of the world won’t hear us, will ignore us, will miss the point. But did rejection ever stop Christians from pointing the way, or from celebrating the life and death and resurrection of Jesus? Did rejection and misunderstanding stop Jesus?

As someone put it:
“Nations have their red-letter days, their carnivals and festivals, but once in the year and only once, the whole world stands still to celebrate the advent of a life. Only Jesus of Nazareth claims this world-wide, undying remembrance. You cannot cut Christmas out of the Calendar, nor out of the heart of the world.” Anonymous(from CrossQuotes.org)

Accepting the full meaning of Christmas, beyond the tinsel and the carols, would mean a commitment that even we find difficult to give. Can we wonder that the world would rather trivialise this event than celebrate it.

Christmas CarolsSo let’s sing our Christmas carols, and let the world join in. Let’s worship together with those who never come to church at any other time. Let them have our seats and get the words wrong, and eat our mince pies, and even go away unchanged. Because grace is the gift that was given at Christmas, not “peace on earth.” The peace the angels sang about will come when we learn to share the grace we have received.

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Beggars on the street: to give or not to give


My friend over at Wondering Pilgrim wrote a post this morning called “Peace is a Pair of Shoes” (you can find it here).  He discusses the perennial problem of giving, and the questions raised when we give to the poor; or rather the questions we raise before we give to the poor, such as, Should I? Shouldn’t I?  Is this the right person?  Is this the best way to help?

They are good questions.  I don’t know about other parts of the world, but here at the bottom end of Africa traffic lights are overflowing with outstretched arms.  Some are empty; some hold a placard, “Plees help! No work! God bless!”  Other entrepreneurial souls offer sunglasses, plastic coat hangers, toys and Christmas hats.

Should I?  Shouldn’t I?  As always we would like definitive answers, wouldn’t we?  We need a formula so that whenever we are tapped on the shoulder or tapped on the heart, we can put the situation through the flow diagram and get the answer.  To give or not to give?

My rule is a simple one.  Don’t give to beggars on the street.  Yes, there are some who genuinely cannot find work, or whose disability precludes them from every form of income, and who are reduced to begging.  But there are too many others whose begging supports an addiction I am not willing to fund.  And the genuinely needy cases?  They are better helped through welfare groups and non profits, which are better equipped than I to identify the real needs of the community, and to make good use of my meagre offerings.

There, that was easy, wasn’t it?  The problem of the poor, sorted, and boxed and put away, nicely out of sight.  Except that Jesus didn’t treat the poor as a “problem”, did he?  He reached out to real people who were poor and broken, and lost and hungry.  He didn’t say to his followers, “Seek answers to the questions of life.”  He said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

Jesus doesn’t give us or ask us to find answers, does he?  It’s the questions that are important.  There is never going to be an answer to the “problem of the poor”, or the lost, or the lonely, or the broken or the captive, just questions.  What does it mean to be a neighbour in this situation, for this person, on this day?  What does it mean for me to love, here and now?

Does that mean I must scrap my rule, and give to every beggar I meet?  That would be another “answer” rather than a question, wouldn’t it?  “Give” is just as simplistic as “Don’t give”.  We are still looking for an answer, a rule; and we are not going to get one.  

Jesus doesn’t appear to us in formulae and flow diagrams; he comes to us as a human being.
“Which one?” we would like to know.  “Will we recognise him?”
Not many did then, why should it be any different now?
“What does he look like?”
Well, he comes as a baby (illegitimate at that), a child, a workman, a wandering rabbi, a blasphemer and a criminal—a traitor against church and state, a man on a cross.  We certainly won’t recognise him if we resolutely avoid eye contact.  No, we are not required to give every beggar whatever he or she wants, any more than God gives his children everything they want, but we are called to notice, to be aware. 

The point about the Good Samaritan was that he didn’t ask, “Who is my neighbour?”  He looked for opportunities to be a neighbour.  Your opportunities will be different from mine, because we are different, and our circumstances are different.  But if we keep our heads up, and if we are willing to risk looking people in the eye and asking God to reveal himself to us, the opportunities will come.  And the love of God, not the answers about God, will begin to flow more freely though us and in us.

Are you afraid?  I am, but if that’s where God is at work, isn’t that where we want to be?

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What is truth? Christ the King Sunday


Rags to riches
We love a rags-to-riches story.  And in South Africa there are many people who have overcome huge challenges to reach heights, which they and their communities never dreamed possible.

There are two ways to approach a rags-to-riches story.  There are those of us who have known only the “riches” part of this person’s story, and we are amazed when we discover the humble beginnings from which he or she emerged.  There is hope here, because perhaps even we can aspire to greatness.

Then there are those of us who knew the “rags” part, when this person was in the neighbourhood.  We can’t believe that this is the youngster we knew.  For some, this role model from our hometown gives hope.  But for others there is cynicism, disbelief in the reality of the dream: “He isn’t all that great.”  “She isn’t that important.”  Jesus himself experienced that response in Nazareth, his home town.  We read in Mark 6:3, “In the next breath they were cutting him down: ‘He’s just a carpenter–Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers…and his sisters. Who does he think he is?’”

In spite of that, we love these stories, because someone who makes it from the bottom of the pile suggests to us that maybe we can also move up the ladder a rung or two.  The so-called great American dream.

Christ the King Sunday
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical calendar.  Next week the new Christian year starts with Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. On this Sunday before Advent starts we celebrate the reign of Christ.

It might seem strange that we celebrate the glory and majesty of King Jesus, and recognise his reign, just at the time that we prepare to remember his humble beginnings, the outrageous circumstances of his birth.

Is this another rags-to-riches story?  We begin the liturgical year with a poor family, and a helpless baby in a manager.  We end the year celebrating the reign of that baby as King.

But this story doesn’t have the usual happy ending.  The rags are there alright.  But there are no riches to be seen, and the end is no better than the beginning: rejection, suffering and a shameful death.

The Reign of Christ
Yet, still, we celebrate Jesus today, not as the babe from Bethlehem, or the boy from Nazareth, or even the man on the cross. Because that’s not where the story ends.  We celebrate him as the risen Christ, Christ the King.

Of course, Jesus is not a traditional ruler whose massive and private compound is not open to public scrutiny.  Christ is King, but we won’t know what his rule is like by trying to compare it with anything we have experienced or that history can show us, not even the reign of the great King David.  In fact, just as the fatherhood of God is unlike anything we see in human fathers, the reign of Jesus is unlike any rule we have ever seen.

We are called to be citizens of a kingdom that is radically different; we are called to a way of life that contradicts everything we experience in the world, literally contradicts, and turns our world upside down—or, some would say, the right way up.

Rags-to-riches may be something to aspire to, something we might achieve one day, with a bit of work and a bit of help.  But the reign of Christ the King, is a way of life for us now, whether we are in rags or surrounded by riches. 

Christ’s Kingdom, is not a Disney World that we visit when we feel like it, or when we can afford it.  It’s the real world we live in.  He is not my King, or your King or this group’s King.  Christ is King of all, whether people acknowledge him or not.  There are no foreigners; there are no “us” and “them”.  It’s all “us”.  He is our King, and his reign contains only two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:30)

Legislation
Part of my job involves making sense of the labour legislation we have in this country.  And while it’s difficult to run a business within the restrictions of labour law, tax and company law, municipal bylaws and the like, it is at least reasonably clear.  We know we are not allowed to fire someone, just because we feel like it, or stop paying taxes.  We know which side of the road we have to drive on, and that we can’t park on the pavement (where would the taxis park?).

While it’s difficult to remember everything, we can always find a friendly lawyer to help us understand the relevant pieces of legislation.

Under the reign of Jesus, the law is much simpler, but obeying it, living it out, is much more difficult.  Labour legislation only applies to those who employ people; building regulations to those who are building.  “Love God” and “love your neighbour” apply to all of us, all the time, in every circumstance.

An intruder
I received a rather alarming email last week.  An intruder found his way onto this blog.  I always welcome comments here from those who visit and read my ramblings.  But this intruder managed to find my email address.  He sent me a ten page, 7000 word email, ranting about how bad the world is, and how bad all the Christian churches and ministers he had been in touch with are (apostate is what he called them).  He asked me what I believe about some issues of faith.  He didn’t want to check his own understanding or his own faith, of course; he wanted to check if I was a true Christian or whether he should add me to the list of all the other “apostates”.

“I’m interested in your specific beliefs about Biblical truth”, he wrote. “Your response will help me discern your relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

That’s quite an arrogant statement from a complete stranger.  And it raises Pilate’s question all over again, “What is truth?”  But instead of asking the question humbly (or perhaps fearfully, in Pilate’s case), the question becomes, “What do you think truth is.  I’ve got the answer neatly package over here and I want to check your answers against the right ones.”

But the Biblical truth he is asking about isn’t whether I love God with all my heart, or am I striving to love my neighbour in all circumstances?  Nothing like that.  It’s:

  • Was Mary a perpetual virgin?
  • Does the millennium come before the rapture or after?
  • Does the rapture happen before the seven years of tribulation (Pre-trib rapture, if you want the buzzword); or does it happen in the middle of the tribulation (Mid-trib rapture)?

Legalism
This is just the sort of legalistic nonsense Jesus warned us about.  Yet on this basis, my intruder is able to state quite categorically:

“I discerned that all the “religious establishment” churches (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox/Baptist/Pentecostal/ etc.) are apostate, deeply ignorant, and involved in all kinds of false teachings and activities.”

Unfortunately this intruder is by no means unique. It’s all over the internet, as if these things were what Christian faith is all about; as if what you and I think about these things are key to understanding our relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Admittedly we Methodists don’t go in for these particular issues much; that’s why most of us are quite ignorant about pre-tribs and mid-tribs and so on.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own set of avoidance tactics—questions we focus on to avoid the call to love. 

We’re more familiar with the really important stuff like:

  • Was Jonah real or is it a parable?  Was there a real whale?
  • Was the world made in seven days or was Genesis 1 a poem?
  • Should we have women bishops?  Oh, no, that’s the Church of England.
  • Do Christians use make up, drink alcohol, dance, go to movies?

The list is endless, and the arguments intense, depending on the circle you belong to.

Truth or distraction?
When we ask these questions, when this guy who wrote to me asked his questions, are we really searching for truth?  Or are we simply looking for a distraction from our real duties, the critical things that Jesus called his disciples to focus on.

We are not going to understand each other’s relationship with God by means of rules, regulations and exam-type questions.  Tick these answers and we’ll see whether you belong.  All we are doing is avoiding having to face up to our neighbours and carry their burdens.

Jesus has told us very clearly how we will recognise a disciple.  And it has nothing to do with belief, but everything to do with practice.  Even the world around us, Jesus said, would be able to recognise our relationship with him, by our love for one another.

Love
“Love one another,” Jesus said in John 13:34-35.  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  Not by our belief in this, or our understanding of that, but by our love for one another.

Of course, the law is much easier. If I can tick all the boxes and pass this arbitrary belief exam, I’m A for away; and if you can’t I can ignore you, because you’re into false teaching.

Love is a much more severe test.  For example, let’s try these questions on for size.

  • What does love look like in my relationship with my spouse?
  • What would grace offer my rebellious child?
  • How does love respond to angry suffering?
  • How do we engage with the communities around our churches, that are struggling with debt and violence and teenage pregnancy?
  • How does grace engage with the young woman for whom abortion seems the only way?
  • Does love only engage with a gay person if he or she leaves his or her gayness outside the door?

I’m sorry.  I don’t have answers to these questions. I only know that I don’t grapple with them enough.  I also know that they are far, far more important than believing in a pre-Trib Rapture, or in Jonah’s whale.

Jonah
The story of Jonah is important for us because, as I see it, we are fleeing from the call of Jesus in the same way that Jonah fled from God’s call to go to Nineveh.  We want to avoid this business of love, this call to carry each other’s burdens, and the burdens of the weak, the poor and the downtrodden. Perhaps, when we pray for the church, we should be praying, “Lord, please send us a whale.”

The coming of Jesus as a baby may give us a warm, fuzzy feeling.  A baby we can understand, look after and mould into shape.  But our celebration of Christ the King on this day, reminds us that the gift of this baby comes with a warning on the wrapper.  As Peter Storey said at the Carol Service held at the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary on Friday night, “The babe of Bethlehem is dangerous.  He has come to turn our world upside down.”

If we let the Christ-child into our lives, we will not mould him or shape him.  He will mould us and, indeed, turn our lives upside down as he invites us into his kingdom, to live under his reign, with rules that are radically different from ours.

Truth
“What is Truth?” Pilate asked.  If he’d stuck around with Jesus instead of rushing out to the crowd, he might have discovered where truth is to be found.  Truth is not the answer to a list of questions, not even to important questions. Truth is a person. We will only know truth as we draw close to and engage with that person, Jesus, who is Christ the King.

I came across the following re-posted comment on John van der Laar’s Sacredise webpage this last week:

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.” (Wilbur Rees)

Is that what we would prefer, our God in a bag, ready to bring out when we need him, and when it’s safe?  

Are we ready for the Babe of Bethlehem to become Christ the King?  A King who is not concerned with answers, so much as lifestyle; who doesn’t want us to understand our neighbours, but to love them; who doesn’t call us to analyse their burdens but to carry them.  He calls us out of the womb, into new birth: a transformed life for a transformed world.

A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 25 November 2012.  Scripture readings:    Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38

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Truth and Lies


Truth

Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

“…the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.  Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears.  We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations.  We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”
J F Kennedy, Yale Commencement 1962

I came across this popular Kennedy quote recently in Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr’s A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House.  Kennedy wasn’t talking about the myths of religion, but of business and politics.  However, one of the great challenges to Christian faith is the multitude of myths and half-truths to which we hold on so firmly. We are not always sure what is myth and what is truth, but we defend all with passion.  Often it is the myth, call it our interpretation of a truth, to which we hold on most firmly, and we too easily let the solid truths slip by.  (Myth, of course, means far more than simply something that is untrue, but, like Kennedy I am using “myth” in its simplistic and negative sense.)

“Love one another.” Unequivocally the clearest most certain command of Jesus to his followers, you and me included, yet one that is most often ignored in favour of less important, or less certain truths.

It was not their evangelism that Jesus told his disciples would convince the world, or their theological understanding, or even their worship.  Jesus said, “By your love for one another, the world will know….”  Yet we defend our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, our forms of worship, our methods of evangelism, even when such defence destroys friendship, and denies the love demanded of us all.

We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to counter those who are different from us, whether within the Christian faith, or outside of it, and spend precious little energy or effort on exploring ways to show love.  I’m not much good at love, I admit.  Love carries great risk.  Love doesn’t ask whether I will be loved in return.  Love is not concerned about being rejected, only with the opportunity to give, and to give extravagantly.  I find myself too quickly asking about the consequences: What if?  And love is stifled.  But, knowing that, recognising my weakness in the most important of commands, I would rather be less noisy about the faults of others.

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