Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Remember, remember, the 5th of November...

Brits around my age or older will probably recognise the quotation in the title. The whole rhyme goes:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
For I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.


Yes, today is Guy Fawkes Day, otherwise known as Bonfire Night, when people in the UK remember how Guy Fawkes, back in 1605, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He failed in the attempt, and after being captured by the authorities was tortured, then received the appalling punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered.

And every year since then, the Brits celebrate November 5th with fireworks and a huge bonfire, on which a 'guy' (usually little more than a bunch of rags) is burned. Most of them probably know little about why Guy Fawkes tried to do what he did. Some of them might even think it would have been a good idea to destroy the Houses of Parliament. In the UK, we tend to distrust politicians. All of them. They're a product of the media, these days. They have make-up artists and speech writers, and plenty of advisors well versed in diplomacy... and - naturally - say what they think the public want to hear. What matters most of all is getting votes.

Or am I too cynical, having watched, and thoroughly enjoyed, 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister', and also having read the books?

I don't know who first said something to the effect that whoever we vote for, a politician gets elected. But it could well have been a Brit. We don't tend to be polarised in our opinions. Like the sky in November, they're usually various shades of grey.

So it's a bit ironic that most of the world woke up this November 5th to the announcement that Barack Obama is President of the USA. I, for one, am relieved to hear it; but I'm British enough that I don't think he's the answer to all the problems currently facing America, or indeed the world. I just think that he, and the package he stands for, is the preferred option out of the two possibilities.

Steve, a long-standing email friend from South Africa, wrote an excellent post entitled 'Politics and Pessimism' in his blog 'Notes from the Underground'. I had not thought about the similarities between Obama and Tony Blair, but now it's pointed out, I can see it. I did have high hopes for Blair, an apparently charming, polite, young man when he went into office as UK Prime Minister. But, as the old saying goes, 'All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. I don't know if it's possible to be a world leader and avoid corruption, even if the initial intentions are good.

I was pleased to see an article on the BBC news site, which I also agree with whole-heartedly: President Obama and the World.

And for those who are convinced that all Christians should have voted for McCain purely on his pro-life position, this post - and the many comments that follow - is thought-provoking: The One-Issue Abortion Vote.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Lead us not into temptation...

I heard a sermon on the subject of temptation yesterday. A few simple points were made: temptation is not a sin (Jesus, after all, was tempted); God does not send temptation, but does permit it; temptation can help us to grow in the Christian life.

I think that was all, though the sermon was about twenty-five minutes and looked at several verses of Scripture. No stories, or anecdotes, as far as I can recall. It was intended for new Christians, so I didn't actually expect to learn anything new.

Still, it got me thinking about the subject of temptation. It all seemed more straightforward in Biblical times. People were tempted to gross immorality, or violence, or idol worship, or similarly unpleasant activities. All clearly wrong. Somehow life these days seems filled with grey areas. I don't, personally, get tempted to commit violence or theft or adultery. Nor do most of my friends. I don't even use bad language, or covet my neighbours' oxen...

Of course, I might gossip a bit, or think negative thoughts about someone, or criticise the preacher... but I don't experience great temptation related to these things. There's no feeling of being caught beforehand between doing the right or wrong path. When I'm in the midst of people grumbling, I usually join in. It's only afterwards that I feel it may have been wrong.

My temptations are more towards what we used to call the sins of omission. I should really clean the windows/water the plants/tidy my paperwork, but I'm involved in reading/blogging/email, so I procrastinate. Maybe I do the chores later, maybe I don't. Nobody gets hurt either way, and I sometimes wonder if it really matters. Does God actually mind if our windows stay dirty for an extra couple of days?

Then there's the temptation to excess, in an activity which isn't sinful, such as reading books. At one extreme, it's clearly a good thing to spend, say, half an hour each morning reading an inspirational Christian book. I don't suppose anyone would object, either, to half an hour at night reading a light novel, to help me fall asleep. We might quibble over which novels are constructive, and whether some might be harmful to read, but in general I think most people would agree that reading, in moderation, is a good thing. So is eating, and taking exercise, and writing email. Even more controversial activities such as playing computer games, drinking wine, or eating chocolate have their place.

But if I spend fifteen hours every day reading books, or if I become so engrossed in my computer that I neglect everything else, or if I eat so much junk that I start to destroy my body by becoming overweight and unfit - or, indeed, if I make a god out of exercise and spend every hour trying to stay thin and muscular - then I have fallen into sin.

So far, that's clear.

The problem is, there's a huge mid-ground between those extremes. And some people want to measure everything. If it's perfectly fine to eat two squares of chocolate once a week, after Sunday lunch, but it's wrong to eat twenty bars of chocolate every day, what about two squares of chocolate every day? Or one small bar every day? Where do we draw the line?

The thing is, there's no such line. It's not that simple. Each of us is different, and temptation hits us in different ways. If I eat a bar of chocolate on Sunday afternoon, and enjoy it, I haven't done anything wrong. However if I eye up another bar, knowing I'm actually full and really don't need any more chocolate, then I'm facing temptation. Someone else might eat three bars before having that fleeting feeling that they've had sufficient. Someone else might not ever be tempted to over-indulge with chocolate. Personally I don't drink alcohol or smoke, so I don't face any temptations as far as those are concerned, but other people struggle with them every day.

My 'sin', according to Enneagram theory, is that of sloth. Not that I don't do anything, but that I procrastinate about what really matters. I know that's true, and my main temptation is to put off what I know to be important. If God is prompting me to write an article, and I decide today is the day to clean the windows, then I am facing temptation. It's hard to see it as wrong when I'm tempted to do something positive, but if it's not the way God is leading me, then it's not what I should be doing.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Head, Heart and Hypocrisy?

Is it preferable that 1000 people die in an earthquake, or that one person hurts their finger?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? One person in a bit of pain is almost nothing when compared to the agony and loss of even ten people in an earthquake, let alone 1000.

Now imagine two scenarios:

1. You see on the news that 1000 more people have perished in an earthquake on the other side of the globe

2. Someone accidentally closes a door on your little finger, almost crushing it completely

Which one causes you more physical pain? Obviously the second.

And a more tricky question: which one causes you more emotional pain?

If we're honest, it's probably the second one, too. I am much angrier with the person who was so careless with the door than I am with God for causing an earthquake. I suspect most people react similarly out of proportion.

I hadn't really thought about this until it was mentioned - almost in passing - during a sermon I heard last Sunday. I don't remember what the rest of the talk was about, but I was very much struck by the throwaway question as to which of these two situations caused me the more pain.

Perhaps I wouldn't have thought much more about it, but in one of those non-coincidences that God seems to delight in sometimes, I'm currently reading Philip Yancey's 'I Was Just Wondering' which basically attempts to answer - or at least ponder on - some frequently asked questions about God and the Christian life.

In his chapter 'Scorpions, Worms and Missiles', Yancey makes exactly the same point: when he was working in a refugee camp in Somalia, he found himself a lot more worried about the possibility of being stung by a scorpion than by the knowledge that 10,000 of the refugees were likely to die within months.

He goes on to quote the book of Jonah, where God made a similar point in a dramatic way. Jonah really didn't care about the thousands of people in Ninevah who were destined to destruction if they didn't change their ways. But he got very angry when God sent a worm to destroy the tree that was shading him from the sun.

I suppose it's human nature that we are most emotionally involved in things that affect us or our loved ones directly. It's basically rather selfish - or, at least, self-centred - but perhaps it's a mechanism to protect us. It would be impossible to give vast emotional energy towards caring deeply about every world disaster - or, indeed, every finger shut in a door.

But sometimes there's so much bad news around the world that we seem immune to it. Another shooting incident in the USA, another riot in the Middle East, another drought in Africa, another earthquake in Asia... do we care at all? Do we pray - even briefly - for those dying in agony, and those who have been bereaved? Or do we just shrug it off as yet more evidence of the depravity of the human race, or the End Times?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What are you giving up for Lent?

Although I grew up Anglican, we never made much of Lent. We ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and went to a service on Good Friday, before the great celebrations of Easter. But I just thought Lent was the season when Easter eggs appeared in the shops.

At fourteen, I joined the Christian Union at my school. For the first time, I came across Christians of a wide variety of denominations and cultures. In the spring, several of them started asking a strange question: 'What are you giving up for Lent?'

I prevaricated. 'Not sure,' I would reply, 'What are you doing?' Some people were giving up chocolate, or sugar, or television… I wasn't entirely sure of the point, but evidently I was expected to do something. So I said I would give up sugar in tea. That wouldn't be too hard: I didn't much like tea, and we never drank it at home. The only time I had a cup was after the Christian Union meeting.

So I gave up sugar in tea, and found that it tasted better anyway. Not much, but sufficiently that on the rare occasions I've had to drink tea since those days, I have never added sugar.

The following year, I was rather more confident. The first time someone asked about Lent, I said that I was giving up alcohol, cigarettes and sex. As a non-smoking teetotal virgin, this was meant to be a joke… some people laughed; others looked at me, wondering whether this quiet, na├»ve girl who rarely went to parties had a secret life they knew nothing about.

By the time I was in the sixth form, I had decided with typical teenage arrogance that I was above such things. When asked about Lent, I would shrug slightly, and say I believed we should worship God at all times of year, and that if it was right to give something up, I didn't need set times of year to do so. I still didn't smoke, drink, or sleep around, and could see no reason to give up chocolate, or my favourite TV programs. The theology was all right, I suppose, but my attitude wasn't.

As a young married adult, attending an evangelical Anglican church, I barely noticed Lent. I didn't even remember Shrove Tuesday most years. Once or twice we joined special study groups at our church, but nobody made a big deal of them. It wasn't until we moved to Cyprus, when I was in my late thirties, that I began thinking more about Lent, and what it means.

The concept of a Lenten fast is related to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. In Cyprus, we learned, the Greek Orthodox Church take this fairly seriously. Devout Orthodox believers give up all meat products; some also abstain from sweets and desserts. The idea is to prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter – to deny themselves, and to give to the poor.

I began to wonder if I should think more about this season. Traditionally, Lent has been used as a concentrated time for self-denial, prayer and focus on what Jesus went through prior to the Crucifixion. Some evangelicals reject the idea, thinking it too 'high church'. But perhaps we have thrown out the baby with the holy water, so to speak; certainly many evangelicals are rediscovering some of the benefits of visual imagery, including the importance of different seasons within the traditional church calendar.

In the UK, many churches follow a system called 'Love Life, Live Lent'. Participating members receive a booklet, which gives a suggestion for each day of Lent. It may be something to encourage family togetherness such as switching off the TV and playing board games for an evening or something more personal such as apologising to someone. It might be an environmental idea, like buying something organic when you wouldn't normally, or a random act of generosity, such as paying more than the price tag for an item in a charity shop.

Most of these suggestions are not overtly spiritual. They're designed for the general churchgoing public, to encourage a small focus each day on something different, and perhaps to think of God a little more while doing so. They may seem trite to some who take Lent more seriously, or pointless to those who ignore it. But the 'Love Life Live Lent' scheme seems to be popular. Last year there were 130,000 participants. If it does nothing else, it should at least result in a few more random acts of kindness.

I thought about doing this myself last year. However, I found that several of the ideas weren't really appropriate in Cyprus, and somehow I wasn't motivated to do something like that on my own. It's best done as a group, for mutual support and encouragement. So I didn't really do anything.

This year, I wondered again if I should make something of Lent. I'm a private kind of person so I don't want to do anything that will stand out. I don't watch TV anyway, and I'm already trying to limit my computer time. I could give up meat, but then I like vegetarian food so much that it would not be any sacrifice. I could give up sugar, but I don't eat much anyway.

We did eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and will no doubt have Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday. In between, I'm trying to listen to God a little more each day. I decided to use a Lent devotional book that I read through some years ago, with short Scripture passages and relevant, thought-provoking comments for each day. I'm reading through the Psalms, a book I usually tend to dip into rather than reading as a whole. And I'm trying to study a little more Greek and do some focussed writing.

Is it necessary to do anything special during Lent? No. Is it beneficial? I begin to think it may be.