Gentleness

 

A week ago, I had the opportunity to preach in Church for the first time. Below is the neatened-up version of what I said. If you would rather listen to the talk, it can be found on the church Facebook page here.

Continuing with our study of the fruits of the Spirit, today we are looking at gentleness. We are going to read 1 Peter 3v8-18.

The dictionary definition of gentle reads as follows: kindly, amiable; not severe, rough or violent; mild; moderate; arch. noble, chivalrous. I like that last one, it makes me think of knights of yore.

Today is Palm Sunday and we have been thinking about Jesus entering Jerusalem, gentle and riding on a donkey. This is maybe not how we would picture a knight, but that’s the point: the Jews were expecting a Valiant Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and restore Israel, but Jesus’ mission was one of gentle revolution – a quiet ushering in of the kingdom of God, turning lives around.

In this passage from Peter, gentleness is linked to living and preaching the good news. We must be ready to give an answer for our faith in Jesus, which we hope would have been evidenced in our lives. If we are ‘eager to do good’, despite insult or mistreatment, people will want to know why.

My NIV study Bible note explains that ‘our apologetic (“answer”) is always to be given with love, never in degrading terms’. This reminded me of another verse about gentleness: ‘a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1)

All this got me thinking, what are we known for? As Christians, are we known for being ‘eager to do good’ and answering questions ‘with gentleness and respect’? or is the way we are seen in the world less positive?

Recently I have been reading Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace – a follow up to What’s So Amazing About Grace? In the opening chapter he says:

We are called to proclaim good news of forgiveness and hope, yet I keep coming across evidence that many people do not hear our message as good news

I feel like in the media Christians are presented as/assumed to be angry about things? When I was a teenager it was Harry Potter, some of my friends tore up their copies. At uni I remember hearing about Christians due to the Jerry Springer opera. We often are presented as being angry about things we disagree with. To the wider culture we are thought to be on the wrong side of many debates – gay rights, abortion, etc

In some ways we are meant to speak out, be a prophetic voice for the voiceless and stand against injustice when we see it. We see this in the Bible, in the books of the prophets. This is sometimes described as righteous anger. And sometimes this is okay – Jesus got angry, we see that in the gospels. But we need to think about what Jesus got angry about. He got angry with the temple traders who disrupted the worship of the Gentiles by setting up a market in the only area they were allowed to worship God in the temple. He got angry at the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, (Matthew 23) who ‘tie[d] up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders’ – who were so focused on the law that they missed God’s grace. These were people who were meant to be showing the way to God, but instead were so caught up in legalistic obsession with rules to live by, without changing their hearts, that they became a stumbling block.

I believe the Church today maybe in danger of this – it is too easy to get on our moral high horse and miss out on showing people the grace of God. I’m thinking about – for example – the abortion debate. I’m ‘pro-life’ but not just the life of the unborn. Some others who label themselves as pro-life aren’t necessarily so in all areas – I’m going to paint a picture of a stereotypical American politician, a Republican, who would say they base their politics on Christian/family values. They are anti-abortion, yes, but they are also anti-immigration (refugees), anti-gun control, anti-universal healthcare – meaning sick people struggle to get the medical help they need, – they are anti-welfare, and they support the death penalty. Is that really pro-life? – This type of person is often seen as hypocrite by wider society. If you are ‘pro-life’ you need to be pro-all life.

Another debate where we perhaps don’t cover ourselves in glory is the area of gay rights. When I was an undergraduate at uni in Cardiff the gay marriage debate was working it’s way through parliament. One of my housemates asked what I thought. I explained that I believe that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman for life, but that while I try to live by what I believe the Bible teaches, I don’t think I should be inflicting my values on those who don’t hold to the same beliefs as me. I choose to try to live by a certain moral code, because my of faith and the values associated, but I can barely stick to it myself, so why should I enforce it on others who don’t hold to the same values?

The passage from Peter talks about suffering for doing good – but is that taking the moral high ground, or showing people love even when it’s hard and we disagree with their lifestyle?

Taking for example, Christian bakers. There have been several famous cases both in Northern Ireland and USA, where Christian bakers have been taken to court and lost their businesses over refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings/gay rights etc. I understand why and support them and applaud their courage, but at the same time – it’s just a cake! And what sends a better message to the world – refusing to serve someone because you disagree with them, or choosing to serve them despite disagreeing with them?

I heard another story on twitter which made my soul hurt. A gay guy was on his way to adopt a cat, when he got a message from the lady who owned the cat saying she had found out he was gay and didn’t feel right giving the cat to him because she was a Christian. She then proceeded to lecture him about his lifestyle. That is not a good demonstration of love or gentleness.

Billy Graham quoted as saying ‘It is the Holy Spirit’s Job to convict, God’s job to judge, my job to love’. Gentleness in action means living a life that shows love and respect to everyone, serving those in need, regardless of how you feel about their life choices. This means: seek peace, do good. Show God in the way you live

Verse 15 of our passage says ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’. The key words for me are: ‘who asks you’. Meaning, wait until you are asked. Show grace, don’t force your opinion on those who aren’t ready to hear it. Wait to be invited. Earn the right to speak into someone’s life by showing them love. And think about what you say – is this going to draw this person closer to God or push them further away?

At school I had a friend called Richard. When we met in year 7, he was an atheist. We stayed friends all through secondary school. When he came out as gay in year 10 or 11, I was the first person he told and I was honoured that he chose to tell me. When we were leaving to go to different sixth forms, he told me that couldn’t be an atheist any more, he had to believe God existed because he saw Him in my life. I was not a perfect teenager, I messed up quite a lot of things, but I tried to live my faith, show kindness to those around me. That opened the door for opportunities to share God with people.

Before you think I’m awesome, I’m not great at this. I often fall into workplace gossip and get frustrated with co-workers who don’t have same work ethic as me. I am resolved to do better! So let’s look a good example of this, when Jesus met a Samaritan woman of dubious morality in John 4.

[I read Ruth Tucker’s re-telling of this story from Dynamic Women of the Bible]

What Ruth Tucker highlights so beautifully is the isolation of the woman before she met Jesus. She was an outcast. The moral people of the town wanted nothing to do with her. She was hungry for conversation, and Jesus was there to meet her.

Jesus may have initiated the conversation, but he let her direct it. He was crossing boundaries even to talk to her (man to woman, Jew to Samaritan) but he didn’t let societal norms stop him from reaching out to someone in need.

He didn’t push her on her life choices. He brought up her marital situation, yes, but didn’t linger on it when she changed the subject. Regardless of her problematic lifestyle, he talked theology with her. Instead of a lecture, she was treated with grace, kindness and respect – with gentleness.

And it worked – where a sermon on sexual morality would have sent her running, an open discussion when Jesus clearly knew about her life but accepted her anyway was what changed her. And the result of this change impacted the whole town.

In this way, gentleness is linked with the other fruits: living a life showing love and kindness to others, bearing with their faults patiently and with gentleness. These create opportunities to show God’s grace to them.

We should be trying to live out our faith, to base our lives and actions on biblical values. But we should not be trying to force our moral code onto others and then expect them to listen when we tell them God loves them. Instead, if we show them God loves them by the way we interact with them, they will be more open to hearing what we have to say. We need to earn the right to tell people about our faith – and maybe that means we never challenge them on parts of their life we disagree with, or maybe that means one day they’ll ask for our advice. Either way, treat them with gentleness and respect, seeking peace. Keep the door open for them to see God.

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art = rest for the soul

I recently joined a Christian art group. I am by no means an artist, I dabble with a bit of painting and quite like colouring, but I would not consider myself at all skilled in visual arts.

At the first meeting I confessed to being an interloper. I explained I am more of a wordsmith than a visual artist, but that I enjoy dabbling. I also read them one of my poems – ‘Hibernation‘ – that I written quite recently. One lady commented that she could really picture the tree as I had described it. I remembered then that a long time ago I had had an idea of publishing my poems in a book with a corresponding picture to go with each, as a kind of meditation/reflection aid.

For this month’s meeting we were given a Bible passage to reflect on and try to create a piece of art inspired by it. I actually suggested the passage, but couldn’t come up with anything so gave up on that idea and read through some of my old poems instead. I realised that quite a lot of them use visual imagery to create parallels and give meaning. I chose one of my favourites – ‘My Life in Your Service‘ – and tried to find pictures that I could use as inspiration for a piece of artwork to go with it.

Now, remember, I am not very good at art, and I am hoping to get better. However, I am quite pleased with my first effort…

 

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What was more pleasing, though, was how peaceful I felt. Even when I messed up and had to rub bits out and try again, I didn’t get frustrated, I just enjoyed the process.

The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that He is creative. The first thing we learn about humans is that we are made in His image. When we create, we are reflecting the image of God and to me it feels like I am bringing my soul in tune with his.

A Lost Masterpiece

I have always been a bit of a geek, so it may not surprise you that some of my very favourite things to watch on tv is are documentaries. I especially love those about history or the arts, so my ideal viewing choice is a documentary on art history.

I recently discovered a new favourite, which adds whole new levels of excitement to the genre. In Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, two historians browse the hidden collections of small city museums to see what they can find in the storage rooms. Between them they pick out a painting of unclear origins, which they suspect is worth more than it seems. While the painting is cleaned and restored by an expert team – which involves removing layers of dirt and grime, and often extra paint that some overkeen previous restorer has added in an attempt to improve the picture – the historians research both the history of the painting and the collection to try to trace the origins of the work.

What I love about this programme is the idea that sometimes things of great value can lie hidden, perhaps covered in the dirt and grime of life, perhaps suffering from failed attempts to fix their issues, their true worth undiscovered. Then someone has the idea to take them out, clean them off, patch them up and put their beauty on display for all to see.

Sound familiar?

To me, this is the essence of the gospel. So many times, the Bible talks of seeking out the lost, the broken, the unclean and making us new, restoring our value. A fair amount of Jesus’ parables are on this theme, for starters (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, the pearl of great price…) But my favourite Bible text on this theme is a little more obscure…

Zechariah 3:1-5:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’ Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.’ Then I said, ‘Put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.

 

Sometimes it can be hard to see ourselves as valuable. When society and the media present an image of what success/beauty/worth looks like we can feel like we have no value because we don’t match up. Sometimes we can be blinded to the value of others, if we feel like we tick all the right boxes. This passage reminds us that we all fall short of a standard, but that the one who set the standard elevates us, saves us from the fire, dusts us off, cleans us up and makes us as good as new. We are diamonds in the rough, buried treasure, a lost masterpiece…

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 2:10, NLT)

Not a Fan

Last week I said that ‘Hibernation’ was the first new poem I had written in a long time – but I made a mistake. I forgot about this one, but it is a different kind of poem…

In the autumn of last year I joined a short-lived writing group, and one week we had to bring a random item and write a poem inspired by it. One of my colleagues had just returned from a holiday to Barcelona, and brought back souvenirs for everyone in the office. I was given the fan pictured below, and that was the item I took. I was thinking what if, instead of a colleague giving it to a co-worker, a boyfriend had bought a similar item for a girlfriend. Anyway, enough explaining, I hope you enjoy…

 

Not a Fan

To him

It was a romantic gesture

“I thought of you while I was there”

To her

It was a thoughtless jibe

A simple reminder

That he went without her

Chose his friends over her

Had experiences she could not share

 

A souvenir of places she could not remember

Plastic and cloth that became a wedge

A grudge

A hint

A nudge

A suggestion that he did not care

 

Jewellery might have won her over

(Not that she cared about the price)

But a tacky fan she could not use

(Because the weather here is never nice)

Made her question his commitment

Made her think she could do better

Became the thing that broke the pair

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Hibernation

I sometimes feel like

My heart has been in hibernation

Like a tree in winter

Barren and dry

Apparently lifeless

But beneath the surface

The roots go deep

And draw up life

And like the warm spring sun

A moment in your presence

Wakes my tired soul

And brings forth new colour

Blossoming, blooming, bearing fruit

After the darkest night

Comes the morning

After the coldest winter

Comes the spring

 

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Film Review: Lars and the Real Girl

Way back in May last year my church hosted the excellent Dr Elaine Storkey, who gave a talk about Film and Theology (one of my favourite topics). There were several films she talked about during the course of the evening that I have been meaning to check out, and I finally got around to getting a copy of one of them…!

Lars and the Real Girl is a quirky romantic comedy starring Ryan Gosling. To be fair, the concept is quite odd, but please don’t let that put you off as it is executed BEAUTIFULLY.

Lars (Gosling) is a socially awkward 20-something from a small town. His brother and sister-in-law try to encourage him to be more outgoing but he has some quite deep-seated issues to work through. One day, to their delight, he announces that his new girlfriend, Bianca, whom he met online, has come to visit. They soon discover that Bianca is actually a lifesize doll. Lars, however, is convinced she is a real person, and his doctor requests that his family play along with his delusion to help him work through his mental illness and social anxiety. Gradually, as Lars’ family, friends and colleagues come to accept Bianca, she takes on a life of her own, and Lars learns what it means to be part of a truly caring community.

I don’t know if I would have watched this film if I hadn’t already seen a few clips from it, because the central idea of a man treating a lifesize doll as his girlfriend to me sounds a bit creepy… But it works, and that is down to the quality of the writing and acting, especially Ryan Gosling as Lars. I entirely believed in Lars’ innocence and naiveté. To him, Bianca is a real person whom he truly loves. Moreover, it is the acceptance of the community in which he lives of Bianca and his love for her that makes the film so beautiful. To me, the film is a powerful lesson in how we should treat people with mental illness – with compassion and understanding. There are some very funny moments and some truly heartbreaking ones, as Lars works through his problems with the help of those around him.

One of the criticisms I’ve read of this film is that it is unrealistic – that no community would be as utterly supportive of someone with such a visible delusion as Lars has. But maybe that’s the point of the film. Maybe we should all be aspiring to be as compassionate as Lars’ community, so that people who are different (for whatever reason) feel accepted as they are, and feel safe enough to work through their issues.

All in all, I really loved this film. It is definitely one I will rewatch and I think it will be counted among my favourites. I know it’s not for everyone as it is a bit odd, but if you like quirky and beautifully made films that make you feel better about humanity, this is one for you.

True Love’s Kiss

I started writing this post a while back (I’d say about two years ago) and couldn’t work out where it was going. Then last week we started a new series at church on the fruits of the spirit and I remembered it.

It was a bit of a strange evening, as nothing for the team had gone to plan. The vicar had laryngitis and couldn’t preach, the curate had been away on retreat and hadn’t had time to prepare anything. The worship team couldn’t get in the building because the key safe was broken, and the vicar was picking up the curate from the station. So by the time myself and the other members of the congregation arrived, everyone was a little bit unsure how the evening would pan out.

The curate made the inspired decision to get us all to do an exercise called ‘lectio divina’. We were looking at the first of the fruits of the spirit, love, so she selected a passage from 1 John 4. It was read out three times, and she asked us to reflect on one word or phrase that stuck in our minds.

Unfortunately, I am not very good at listening, so the phrase I chose to focus on isn’t exactly in that passage – I heard the start of verse 13 “this is how we know” and my brain filled in the next line from an old worship song: “this is how we know what love is”.* The following line in the song says: “just one look at the cross”. So this phrase was circling round in my head, and brought to mind the post I started writing two years ago. So I decided to finish it tonight.

 

I’m a big fan of fairytales. I love the mix of frivolity and seriousness, fantasy and wisdom. I love that the ordinary person can become the hero and that with courage, determination and something to fight for they can overcome any foe, and Good can triumph over Evil.

One of my favourite shows is Once Upon and Time (but I’m only on season 2 so no spoilers, please** – and actually I should warn you there is a season one spoiler up ahead). In this show, all of our favourite fairytale characters are trapped by the evil Queen’s curse, in a small village called Storybrooke in the middle of nowhere in modern America, with no idea who they really are, unable to be who they are meant to be. The only one who can free them from the curse is Emma, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, but she was brought up in a foster home and doesn’t believe in fairytales. A theme running through the show is that the only thing more powerful than magic, more powerful than any curse, is true love, often demonstrated by true love’s kiss. It is only when Emma realises the depth of her love for her son Henry that the curse is broken and all the people of Storybrooke rediscover their true selves. It turns out that a fail-safe was built into the curse so that Emma, the product of Snow White and Prince Charming’s true love, could break the curse by an act of true love.

This show brings a new take on many old stories and weaves them together beautifully. But there is a deeper parallel to this story that was hinting at me from under the surface…

We are all like the inhabitants of Storybrooke. We are all under a curse that we cannot break on our own. We have all forgotten the people we were created to be. GK Chesterton puts it like this:

‘Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our lives we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.’ (Orthodoxy p211)

A while back, I was reading Lisa Bevere’s Girl’s With Swords, which also picks up on this theme of the curse we are under. She talks about how at the beginning of time there was a garden, and an act of disobedience, and that brought consequences. The curse consisted of three layers of separation – man was to live in disharmony with God, with the earth, and with each other. But there was always a plan to free us from the curse, a plan that required an act of true love:

‘You see, the Cross was always part of the plan. It was not a backup plan that was set into motion when Adam and Eve failed. It was the fail-safe. Each day Jesus lived to express the Father’s heart, will and nature to the lost inhabitants of the earth’ (p69, emphasis added)

The thing about the cross is, the parallel I mentioned earlier, is that we use the symbol of the cross as kiss when we write a letter to a loved one. I don’t think that this is a coincidence when the ultimate symbol of love was Jesus’ death on a cross to save all of us from the curse we are under. One of my favourite hymns puts it beautifully:

On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.

(William Rees)

The cross is True Love’s Kiss – the only thing powerful enough to break any curse and release us to be our true selves.

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* I just checked and it actually appears in chapter 3, so I’m not a complete heretic…

** I have actually been so busy that I have not got much further than the start of season three still… really must get on with that…