"Constructive" Criticism

Criticise all you want. There’s definitely change in the air.

But, as many have noted before, change for the sake of change is pointless.

Take the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. Trump is starting to dismantle it without having anything to replace it with – which he kind of admits. His own fanbase in the voting pool has just realised that they no longer have health cover because they’re too old to be on their parent’s now they are at university.

oops…

But the Donald can’t take it when he’s crossed. I’ve never seen such a thin-skinned US president. Even when the comment is supposed to help him get back on the right path. Like firing the AG, not really because of the criticism, but so he could put in another “Yes” man.

OK, this is a Christian blog. What does this have to do with Christ?

Actually, a lot.

Like it or not – and most believers I’ve spoken to don’t – Trump is president. Some voted for him and regret it, some voted Clinton, and some didn’t vote because they thought it was a slam dunk for Clinton – so why bother.

I don’t believe (as I’ve said before) that either candidate was suitable. I was horrified to see the list of famous preachers lining up to kiss Trump’s ring – some people I had expected, but one or two that truly worried me.

Not being American, I didn’t get a say in who the individual charged with “leading” the “free world” would be last November. Honestly, I wouldn’t have voted for either of them. But there was one thing that alarmed me most about both, but Donnie in particular: their complete unrepentant attitudes.

Neither could take criticism, both tried to pass the buck. And that’s not a suitable attribute for any president, especially one (as both do) that professes to be a Christian.

And that’s the point.19b87-grindstone

“As iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens [and influences] another [through discussion]”

Proverbs 27:17 Amplified

Discussion involves criticism. It requires honing the individual, just as honing a blade sharpens it.

I usually have a knife in my pocket. I know a bit of first-aid and it’s a useful tool to carry. Yesterday I found a paramedic whose car had broken down outside our office. All he needed was a knife or pliers. I leant him my knife and he tried to use it to cut a steel cable.

Now I keep the blade sharp, but not that sharp! After it inevitably failed to cut through the cable, he returned it. The first thing I did when I got inside was to sharpen it.

Why?

It was so dull after trying to cut the cable that I couldn’t have cut butter with it. I keep it sharp to be able to cut a bandage, or wadding, or (on myself twice in the past) even open a smaller wound to allow cleaning it properly. In the field, a blunt blade is useless.

But here’s the thing: you have to wipe the blade after you sharpen it, because (if you did it right) there is now metal dust on the blade – not something you want to get in a wound.

I use a ceramic sharpener, so the metal can only be from the knife. When I sharpen the carving knife before a meal it’s the same. To sharpen it, you must remove the dull part.

We are supposed to take the rough edges off through truly constructive criticism. But we have to be tough enough to take it.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to criticise. His followers weren’t afraid to let Him.

Peter wasn’t offended when Jesus called him out for rebuking Him over his path to the Cross – “But turning around [with His back to Peter] and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan; for your mind is not set on God’s will or His values and purposes, but on what pleases man.”” (Mark 8:33 AMP)

These days, feeding the 5000 might actually look like this:

5000 modern issues

But Jesus would never have stood for it! Jesus was not subtle. He didn’t beat around the bush. He called things exactly how He saw them.

If that sounds eerily familiar, it should. Donnie said that’s what he does.

But the big difference is he can’t take it when someone does it to him.

As Christians, we are the real leaders of the world. Salt and light. But to be effective, we must be sharp. So we must avoid being loners. Stay around other people who are real believers. Not who believe in God, but as I have said in previous posts, people who believe God.

If we truly believe Him, we won’t mind when He sharpens us through others.

So we need to learn humility. Accept constructive criticism.

Believe God.

Trust Him.

Act like you do once you truly do…

And together we can change the world.

Together. Not alone. Not “only me”.

This isn’t “Highlander” – “There can be only one” in the real world needs to be referring to Jesus, not ourselves.

Let’s step out together with Jesus.

The World won’t know what hit it!

Standing Up

Being a Witness for Christ isn’t always easy.

In fact, in today’s climate it can be downright precarious.

The biggest issue right now is understanding the idea of “persecution”.

Huffington Post recently ran an article titled “8 Countries Where Religious Freedom Is Actually Under Attack”, the understanding being that persecution does not happen in the West, especially America, because nobody holds a gun/sword/knife to anyone’s throat/head and tries to force them to deny their faith or die.

And if that is all you understand persecution to be then they are right.

But 2 Timothy 3:12 says:

Indeed, all who delight in pursuing righteousness and are determined to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be hunted and persecuted [because of their faith]

(Amplified)

So we are faced with the need to redefine persecution. No, maybe decapitation and baking a cake are not physically the same. I’m not saying they are. But where is the line? What makes someone a sufferer of persecution?

Any action which forces someone to adhere to a rule that contravenes their belief in Christ can be deemed persecution. I admit, the clerk who refused to issue the marriage license was not my favourite person, but it was a valid stand she took. When she accepted the job, same-sex “marriage” was not an issue. The terms changed after she began working there. She was not the only person, surely, who could issue the license. So why was she forced to violate her beliefs for the sake of someone else’s or lose her job? Similarly, the couple who declined to provide a cake did so because of their beliefs. By standing by their faith over the hypocrisy of the World that tried to force them to provide their service to someone standing in opposition to their sincerely held beliefs, they have lost their business and reputation.

How is that different to the Romans forcing a sacrifice to Mars or Venus 2000 years ago? They lost their means of putting food on the table, paying for their homes, cars and any other obligations they may have had.

Because they stood up for what they believe in. They weighed the possible outcome – loss of their material goods – against what Christ said “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NKJV). They chose to follow this command rather than compromise.

Western Persecution is insidious in nature. It convinces people that if there are actual demons they’re all in the Middle East or Africa. More often it presents itself as “reason”. “Logic” dictates that the resurrection couldn’t be true. And logically it’s crazy to think. But consider for a moment that at least 120 people saw Jesus after the crucifixion. The sightings were noted by non-Christian sources such as Pliny and Josephus. The disciples were prepared to die for the sake of not shutting up about it. In fact, of the Apostles (including Paul), 11 out of 12 were executed for talking about it. Only John died of old age, but wait: he lost everything financially that he had and died in exile. He was no longer a fisherman with a boat. Talking about Jesus and refusing to compromise cost him his business first.

Sound familiar?

Things never start at maximum throttle. Any movement trying to derail Christianity will first have to undermine the idea of Christianity. So a Just God becomes a “Loving God”, which He is, but then the idea gets warped. We end up with “How can a ‘loving God’ condemn people to Hell?” and rather than point out the system of Free Choice He set up in the Bible it gets capitulated into “He wouldn’t” and POW there goes the need for repentance. Everyone suddenly gets a “Get Out of Hell Free” card and so there’s no fear of the coming wrath and judgement. It’s been going on so long now that we can’t grasp the idea that there can be a coming Judgement. Next, trivialise the ideas. Armageddon and Judgement Day are suddenly movie titles with Bruce Willis and Arnie, and Satan looks a lot like Gabriel Byrne.

We are living in the situation where we see people expecting Salvation without sacrifice, Christianity without Christ, Forgiveness without repentance and heaven without hell, just like William Booth predicted. What began as a minor blip is now the substantive belief system of the majority. Alarmingly, many evangelicals are stuck in it as well. It may be what makes Trump’s cohorts so dangerous. They at least recognise there’s something wrong. (No clue how to fix it, but it’s a start!)

So what do we do?

Firstly, we must look at ourselves. Examine our own life and get any plank out of our eyes. It’s not easy, but if we are going to be Ambassadors of Christ it is absolutely essential.

Secondly, quit compromising. True, not everyone who disagrees with us is persecuting us, but equally true, it doesn’t mean none of them are. If standing for Christ will risk everything it might just be the right thing to do.

Finally, brace for impact. We need to anchor deep to weather the storm coming. So many Christians I’ve met have fallen silent at best and away from God completely in some cases because they have never built ready to weather a storm. The storm itself cannot kill us. It cannot take what is most precious, but we can surrender it. It is vital we don’t quit when things get tough. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Ephesian 6:13)

Stand firm and be a Witness of Jesus Christ.

The Folly of Legalism

What to do when everything is Forbidden

“Thou shalt not…

So says much of the opinion from the Pharisees. It’s echoed in the doctrines of Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutherism. Calvinists swear by it. Southern Baptists in particular have a long list.

The Law in the Old Covenant was misunderstood in a huge way. The ancient Jews thought it had been given to them so they could earn a way to Heaven. They completely missed the point.

A couple of years ago I read a great book called “The Year of Living Biblically” by AJ Jacobs. He describes it as “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible”. It’s a brilliant and funny look at the crazy Laws of both the Old and New Testaments. A satirical (I hope!) look at legalism.

The thing is, as amusing – and trust me, it’s amusing – as it is, Jacobs focusses on the things forbidden by the Bible. I think to make a point.

And it did. It got me thinking about what I believe, and why I believe it.

The point of the Law was to demonstrate to the Jews that Salvation in every area was impossible to achieve by following a set of rules. Jesus equates holding anger in your heart to murder and “appreciating” the figure of the girl across the street as adultery. Just in those two simple thoughts at some point we’ve all been guilty of murder, coveting, adultery, etc, etc…

And I do mean all been guilty of it.

Pretty much the only thing that got a jail sentence under ancient Law was debt. Everything else, they killed you. That’s why when Jesus is brought the woman caught in the act of adultery nobody throws a stone. In retrospect, every one of them realised they were as deserving of stoning as the woman was.

I heard Donald Trump say he’d never asked forgiveness from God because he’d never done anything that needed forgiving. Maybe in terms of outward actions he’s right – unless you count adultery anyway. But he’s demonstrated what his thoughts are countless times, and I think we can agree this is a man who lacks a moral compass.

Not that Hilary Clinton is any better. She just knows how and when to keep her mouth shut (mostly). Politics is rife globally with morally bankrupt pseudo-leaders claiming innocence. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma was tried for rape shortly before being elected President, and the Constitutional Court held that several hundred counts of corruption and failing to uphold the Constitution should be prosecuted against him.

It seems like anything goes these days.

Nothing it forbidden any more.

St Paul had a similar problem in the church in Rome. Much of the society there can be seen in modern attitudes. Things which were absolute negatives by Mosaic Law were so commonplace nobody noticed them as sin any more. They were just a part of the way things were. Temples had prostitutes in them – some had more than the brothels did – murder was put on daily as entertainment in the Coliseum and Circus Maximus in Rome and the amphitheatres around the Roman Empire.

What do you do when society demonstrates no moderation?World Law

Demonstrate Holiness.

Worldly society is gradually changing the rules for mankind. When warned of changes, Christians need to be the ones to initiate reforms. Throughout history for 2000 years that’s what has happened. Abolition of slavery, education for all, welfare handouts (alms), legal age of consent, age of majority, ending racism and sexism (or trying to). These have been done, and are being worked on by Christians. Men like William Wilberforce, John and Charles Wesley, William Booth, Billy Graham, CH Spurgeon and many other lesser known but equally important men and women of God have changed history.

But their focus was mainly on what was not forbidden rather than a list of decrees on stopping behaviour.

Consider your toddler. “Don’t poke the dog” is seen less as a command and more of a challenge issued to small children. My own brother died because he didn’t listen when my parents told him not to go out on his bicycle to the local garden centre because the road was too dangerous. He was nine. He caused an accident that left him dead and scarred an innocent motorist’s memory for life because of Robin’s actions.

No, “thou shalt not” has never been particularly effective. Even the death penalty doesn’t deter people these days. And why should it? Popular society has decreed there is no literal Hell, the devil doesn’t exist and God is this guy in a dressing-gown with a beard down to his knees who is a vegan pacifist. Of course that god would let anyone in to heaven.

But there are moral absolutes. God’s opinion on sinful thoughts and actions is perfectly clear. The Bible also says God does not change, but rather:

Jesus Christ is [eternally changeless, always] the same yesterday and today and forever

Hebrews 13:8 (Amplified)

The Holy Spirit gives Peter a vision of all kinds of animals lowered in a blanket from Heaven, and he is invited to kill and eat (Hebrews 10 & 11) both kosher and ceremonially unclean animals. (Personally I’m glad. I love bacon!) This is an echo of Jesus’ words that it is not what we eat, but what comes out of our mouths in the form of anger or hate that makes us “unclean”.

All things are lawful [that is, morally legitimate, permissible], but not all things are beneficial or advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life]. Let no one seek [only] his own good, but [also] that of the other person.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (Amplified)

In the New Covenant, Jesus has completed the Law and granted permission to us to act how we choose. But Paul shows this freedom is only free because it has boundaries of morality and decency.

Not all things are good for us – even if the law of the World says they are ok. Man’s laws must be placed behind God’s, and it’s our place as Christians to see that they are.

Now before the extreme right wing gets their rifles out let me quantify that. (For the extreme right wing, that means I’m going to break it into small words for you so you understand.)

We should seek to protect those who cannot protect or speak for themselves. That includes babies being terminated.

PUT THE RIFLE DOWN!

It NEVER means “go shoot the doctor and blow up the clinic”. There are times when the safety of the mother needs to be considered. In the case of pregnancy by rape, the issue must never be an absolute forbidding of termination.

What it does mean to be “pro-choice” is that you are free to make the choice before the pregnancy. Sex outside marriage is not God’s plan, but if you’re going to do it at least make sure no unplanned pregnancy can happen. Abortion should never be a contraceptive option. No baby should be aborted because they will be inconvenient.

Sex before marriage is permissible in so far as it’s no longer something to be executed for, but it’s not beneficial for us. It gets in the way of our relationship with God.

I love “Bones” on TV. One of the greatest things is the battle inside Booth, the “good” Catholic, over his standing with God before he marries Brennan. He has a child with her and they live together but he can’t go to confession any more because he would have to confess sexual immorality and he can’t get absolution because his confession needs to be from a place where he will repent and completely stop the unGodly behaviour, but he won’t because he’s “in love” with Brennan.

Forgiveness is hard to come by when everything is forbidden.

It’s easy to go to God and be forgiven when it’s something we didn’t mean to do, want to do and will never do again. But when it’s something that brings a little happiness it makes it difficult. Blocks between us and God get put in place the second we say “forbidden”.

Samuel L Jackson’s character in “The Negotiator” tells his colleague to never say “No” to a hostage taker. It closes options.

God, I believe, recognises this in us. He meets us where we are.

And what was forcibly forbidden under the Old Covenant is more gently guided out of society through forgiveness and repentance – the complete turning away from these actions that threaten our relationship with God.

Forbidding leads to intolerance and hate.

And there’s enough of that without the Church adding to the mayhem. We should be the Peacemakers.

Everything has a Context…

“I am a rock,
I am an island.”

I am a Rock; Paul Simon 1965

I’ve had this song stuck  in my head for a couple of days now. I like Simon & Garfunkel. Their songs often reflect where I am. Billy Joel is another favourite of mine, in fact I’m fairly sure his “Innocent Man” album was written specifically about my life at that point!

I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts recently. My focus, which with ADD isn’t great to start with, has been off. Physically I’ve been in pain for longer than I can remember and it’s getting worse, my psychologist had to postpone my appointment with him for this coming week (I see this guy because he’s also got Bible Study qualifications – my experience with non-Christian psychologists has been less than great and very expensive) and my ability to help the people I care about as an individual is compromised because of all of the preceding factors.

BUT…

Things are changing. Finally.

Despite the best efforts of my family I’ve felt very isolated the last few years. As a group we’ve had some major issues to deal with, which are not my testimony to share, and as an individual I’ve had to deal with an altered reality after finding the context of my early life changed by initially one, now two medical discoveries: ADD being the first, and a diagnosis of Schoemann’s Disease – a condition where the vertebrae in the thoracic part of my spine are not “normal” leading to chronic back pain – being the second, and I only found out about that a month ago. It changed the context of my life – again – and I’m dealing with the change that means for me, and my perspective of who I am and have been for 44 years.

“Have you considered my servant Job?” asks God several times in Job. Satan takes his family, influences the “helpful” comments of his wife and friends, bankrupts him and finally is given leave to attack his body as long as he does not actually kill the man of God.

Job refuses to curse God or blame Him for his current situation, no matter how bad it gets. He can’t see it, but somehow he recognises there is another perspective to what he’s experiencing and God will be faithful if he remains true to his God.

So true he remains.

And God restores him with more than he’d originally lost.

Job realises his life is part of a context he can’t quite see.

Now I said things are rough. I’m not Job, but I can see how the guy could be tempted to quit. Isolation is not a good thing. Job’s friends and his wife left him feeling isolated, marooned on his own private island of contemplation.

That’s the part where I identify. 17 years ago at this tie of 1999 I was facing the imminent death of my dad from cancer. We knew it was coming, the tumour in his brain could not be completely removed because – as I understand it – a glioblastoma sets “roots” into surrounding tissue. Brain tissue. The tumour they removed was the size of a grapefruit. For a while dad’s personality returned, but there was damage. He lost his sense of balance and had to use a wheelchair or walking sticks to he didn’t fall over. I had made a mistake that had undone my faith to see him healed: I had asked the doctor straight out if the tumour would kill him. Rookie mistake. We place weight on the words spoken by experts, and when the answer came back “yes”, my ability to pray without doubt for healing was shattered and I didn’t have enough time for it to recover before he died.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I felt alone then, despite my mum’s best efforts. I realise now she needed me to need her so she wasn’t alone, but I was broken badly and couldn’t get past it.

In many ways I feel similarly broken at the moment. Lots of people are reaching out to help, but I seem to be unable to express what I really need – probably because I’m not 100% sure. I want them to be around and help me with what I’m going through, but at the same time I want them to butt out and leave me alone to do things my own way. The two are mutually exclusive.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armour,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

But things are changing. My time as an island is drawing to a close, finally.

Our regular receptionist is on leave this week so we have another lady filling in. I find it easier to relax with our stand-in for some reason I have yet to figure out. My wife is going to be in doing more hours, which I’m nervous about but is a good thing in the long run. We have a lady starting this week who I’m training to take over the part of the job I can no longer do. Exciting times.

We live in an isolated world today.

Growing up, “social networking” meant having my best mate over to play “Elite” on my computer, a few of us getting together to go for a walk, cycling to the local reservoir or just to hang out and talk. The internet hadn’t been invented yet, and my current SIM card has more memory than my computer did then.

Simpler times. And harder to be isolated in. We were there – physically – for one another. When my brother died I was with a good friend. I spent the next few days in the company of him and a handful of other real friends, not “virtual” ones.

I wasn’t an island. I couldn’t be. At a party I’d be the guy sitting in the corner making small-talk with the potted fern, sure, but in real-life when the ones tormenting me were split off from the group I was also the go-to guy for real advice. And I had go-to friends when I needed advice as well.

There’s a place here in South Africa I love to visit, although it’s been a couple of years since I was able to. Jongensgat has 2 timber cottages that have electricity and running water but no phone. No TV or internet either. My cell-phone gets no reception there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
View from Jongensgat cottage

When you go with a few people you have no option but to interact. There’s no sense of urgency. Whilst there is a kitchen, cooking is done over a slow fire by the door in a potjie – a cast-iron pot that resembles a small cauldron – and the stews it creates take several hours to cook, so you settle down with a glass of wine, scotch (or two), cider or beer and talk. It’s a great way to be.

You get to really know people after a few days in that environment. The artificial barriers we put up as social norms begin to come down and we rediscover we were meant for fellowship. God was right when He said it is not good for man to be alone. Alone we kind of find new and improved ways of screwing up – not that it is possible to underestimate the impact of large groups of stupid people.

But to be able to unplug with people you care about and remind yourself why you care about them is very important.

Even Jesus had friends. He spent over 3 years walking around the countryside with 12 guys, talking, joking, eating, sleeping and praying together. And that’s just the time we know about from the Gospels. He was over 30 when executed, so some of those guys He’d probably known for some time. He was God, but He was human too – and humans are designed to function around other humans. His nature as God could not escape the fact that as Man, Jesus had needs. He needed rest, sleep, companionship. Maslow’s hierarchy would apply to Jesus just as much as it does to you and me.

Yes, Jesus drew away from time to time to be alone. We all need to do that sometimes, but He came back because as a man He was designed to need company of humans – and God designed humans to be His friends, not automatons mindlessly worshipping Him. Before the Fall, Adam walked with God in the cool of the evening as a friend. God wanted to get that back, so He dressed Himself in Jesus’ body and became that He wanted to be reconciled with.

God didn’t want to be an island. He didn’t design man to be either.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

We’re not islands. Our lives have a context within the life-stories of those we are around.

My dearest friend is a young woman I met a few years ago. She was my boss at the company I was working for at the time, brought in from another city. I miss her company dreadfully because other than my wife, she’s the only friend I’ve had in over 20 years who makes me forget to check my phone every five minutes. The truest friend I’ve made in many years. One of her poems is an entry on this blog, “If I Give Up Now”, and is a post I frequently re-read myself. Please have a look as I know it will Bless you in ways you won’t realise unless you read it!

I’m not afraid to have female friends. It’s part of not being an island for me. Billy Graham made a point of never being alone with a woman so he could never be accused of improper conduct. There’s wisdom in that, but sometimes the softer nature or stronger nature of the opposite gender is exactly what we need. If the only waves to strike shore were stormy the coastline would be destroyed in no time. Similarly if all the waves ever did was to lap gently on the rocks there would never be any change. Nature needs soft and hard impressions, so do our spirits. That’s why God made men and women different from one another. A woman’s strength is often hidden in softness, a man’s softness hidden by strength.

Things happen in life. During the last 30 or so years in mine I’ve seen new lives enter the world, held the hands of the dying, attempted suicide, buried over 20 family members – some of whom I’m now older than – made and lost friends, loved and been loved.

I’ve also isolated myself and allowed myself to be brought back in by the ones who love me.

I’ve learned that while I can be an island, this life is so much better if it’s shared.

 

Island